I went fishing over the weekend in the Gulf of Mexico and caught some gag grouper and red snapper. But all were released because those fisheries are currently closed. It caused me to pause and think about the new Marine Recreational Fishing Program and what it may mean for saltwater fishing in the future.
For dealers and their customers along the nation’s coasts, the benefits of a successful MRIP cannot be overstated. So just what is it?
The MRIP is a new way that NOAA Fisheries hopes to accurately count the catch of saltwater recreational anglers. It replaces the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey -- a system created in the 1970s that anglers long decried as wikld guesses and were supported by the National Academy of Sciences that also dubbed it "fatally flawed!" Still, for decades NOAA refused to acknowledge the unscientific nature of MRFSS – which randomly just called names out of the phone book and asked them about their fishing, including people who didn’t fish! The bad data was, and still is, being used to determine stock assessments, quotas, closed seasons and so on.
But that’s finally changing for the better. In recent years, recreational boating and fishing organizations have become much more vocal about fish management programs and the need for accurate data. They’ve blasted the lack of accuracy as well as an obvious bias toward commercial fishing interests in previous fisheries management decisions. It has resulted in this overhaul of NOAA’s recreational data program. It has even led to potential Congressional action like House Bill 2304, the “Fishery Science Improvement Act” that would mandate more science; or House Bill 3061, the “Flexibility and Access in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act” that would extend the time to rebuild overfished stocks; or House Bill 2706, the “Billfish Conservation Act” that would ban the sale of Pacific-caught billfish in the U.S. except Hawaii.
To make the MRIP work, a comprehensive database of saltwater anglers was needed as the research source. While it basically took NOAA three years to get that off the ground, it’s essentially in place now, primarily through state saltwater licensing programs.
On the table, of course, is the huge economic impact of recreational fishing, basically ignored until now. By virtually any measure, it far exceeds that of commercial fishing. Therefore, accurate data of recreational angler spending should be prominent in all future management decisions on quotas, for example. Moreover, proven programs like size and bag limits, equipment restrictions and seasons, and catch & release programs are preferable management tools over such actions as so-called marine protected areas (no-fishing zones) or transferrable catch shares policies.
There’s little doubt that real serious problems exist in at least some fisheries. Overfishing is not in the best interest of anyone, including boat dealers selling saltwater fishing machines. Good management will guarantee successful fishing outings and smiling customers. Hopefully, the new MRIP will provide the kind of data that delivers on the promise.