Court Does the Math on Recreational Fisheries Allocations

  • The Marine Recreational Information Program was recently updated to provide more accurate estimates of how many fish anglers are landing, and the results were not surprising – recreational anglers have been catching more fish than previously estimated.
  • As a result, previous catch histories must be calibrated to the reality that anglers were catching more fish, which means the stocks were more abundant overall, and since allocations of quotas between the recreational and commercial fishermen were based on past catch histories, the original allocation must be adjusted to reflect the change.
  • The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia recently ruled against commercial fishermen who sued the federal government for a shift in the allocation percentage of red grouper in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the new information, setting a strong precedent for the recreational anglers as more allocations are set to be updated with the new recreational catch information.

Why It Matters: Federal marine fisheries management is often a balancing act for those species that are both recreationally and commercially important. Where specific allocations between the two sectors exist, they were generally set long ago based on the catch histories of each. An improved survey or recreational harvest information by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has indicated that angler catch estimates have been historically underestimated, and current quota allocations to the recreational sector should be updated to reflect the actual landings on which the allocations were originally set - and the courts agree.

The Marine Recreation Information Program (MRIP) is the federal survey that estimates angler harvest annually by species. In 2017, the survey transition from the Coastal Household Telephone Survey (CHTS) to a new mail survey to get angler effort estimates, called the Fishing Effort Survey (FES). One of the major driving factors for the shift has been the steady decline in landline telephones in the U.S., and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) statisticians determined that a mail survey provided much more reliable information. They also discovered that the CHTS and previous iterations of MRIP had been underestimating the number of fish landed by anglers.

The discovery has important implications for fisheries management. Fishery stock assessment models rely heavily on past catch histories. The fact that anglers have been landing more fish in a particular fishery generally means that the stock was more abundant than previous assessments estimated, and thus the harvestable quota advised by the models should have been higher. It also means that the allocation between the commercial and recreational sectors, which were based on those past catch histories, need to be updated to reflect how they should have been set in the beginning.

Allocations of limited fisheries resources are perhaps the most contentious decisions regional fishery management councils face. For that reason, it came as little surprise that the recent Gulf of Mexico red grouper allocation adjustment to reflect the new red grouper MRIP-FES numbers, which gave a higher percentage of the updated harvestable quota to the recreational sector, was contested in court by members of the commercial fishing sector.

“We’ve been advocating for some time now that updating allocations to reflect the new FES numbers should be automatic since it’s simply a mathematical correction to percentages that were set incorrectly in the past. Keeping the existing allocations, in light of the FES-influenced quota updates, would be a de facto reallocation away from the recreational sector to the commercial sector,” said Chris Horton, CSF’s Senior Director of Fisheries Policy. “We are very pleased to see that the courts agree, which will be tremendously helpful as more stock assessments are conducted and more corrections to current allocation percentages will need to be made.”

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