August 14, 2023

New Glitch with Federal Recreational Catch Data – Problematic or Promising?

Article Contact: Chris Horton,

Why it matters: Federal fisheries management relies heavily on information about what was caught yesterday to predict how many fish can be caught tomorrow. The number of fish landed by the relatively few commercial fishermen can be counted dockside when they land and sell their fish. However, for millions of recreational anglers, the only way the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) can get an estimate of harvest is through the use of a two-part survey – the Access Point Angler Intercept Survey, which collects catch-per-trip data, and the Fishing Effort Survey (FES), which gathers information about the number of trips anglers take. 2018 saw the most recent change to the effort component when the FES was changed to a mail survey from a coastal household telephone survey. Lauded over the last five years as the best scientific information available, NMFS recently revealed that is not likely the case.


  • Fishery-dependent data, or how many are caught each year, play a central role in federal fisheries management. For the recreational sector, estimates of catch are generated through the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP).
  • A recent discovery that MRIP has been overestimating recreational catch will cause problems for fisheries managers and may limit angler access for some fisheries over the next few years.
  • A significant “redo” of recreational data collection lead by the states, and long supported by the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF), may finally be on the table.

Last week, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) held a virtual meeting with the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation and other representatives of the recreational fishing community to announce that they discovered a problem with how they estimate the number of fish we catch. Since federal fisheries management relies heavily on fishery-dependent data, or the estimated number of fish caught each year by anglers or commercial fishermen, to guestimate how many fish can be caught in the future, the discovery could have far-reaching implications for fisheries management and access to our recreational fisheries.

Specifically, the Marine Recreational Information Program, which is the federal survey system for estimating angler catch, has two components – the Access Point Angler Intercept Survey (APAIS), which collects catch-per-trip data by interviewing anglers at the boat ramp or pier, and the Fishing Effort Survey (FES), which gathers information about the number of trips anglers take through a mail survey. The FES survey has only been around since 2018 and indicated that recreational fishing effort has been much higher than what previous versions of the effort survey have estimated. Since being declared the best available science, the new FES-associated estimates have resulted in more fish available for harvest in some cases, along with allocation adjustments between the recreational and commercial sectors.

However, several states, and even anglers, raised concerns that the relatively new FES was overestimating harvest. Turns out, they were right. Through a pilot program that tested for bias in the new survey, NMFS has discovered that simply reordering the questions can result in a 30-40% reduction in effort estimated by the current FES. The negative – until all this gets sorted out, we will not have reliable estimates on the annual catch limit (ACL) or accountability measures (AM’s) for any given species. A positive – the dead discard estimates that has choked the red snapper season to just two days in the South Atlantic recently are too high as well, opening the door for the possibility of longer seasons in the future.

NMFS’s solution is to run another year-long study of a side-by-side comparison to see if they can arrive at some new estimates with any degree of confidence. CSF’s solution, which we have been advocating for years in the Gulf, South Atlantic, and elsewhere, is to scrap MRIP altogether and give data collection responsibilities to states that are interested in assuming the lead, not the federal government. The Gulf states have already demonstrated it can be done and with much more timely and accurate information available for monitoring and management in the end. The key is getting all the states to collectively agree on similar methodologies so that the data is comparable across regions and fisheries.


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