Editor's Note: After this article was written but prior to publication, NOAA opened a public comment period on this very topic; be sure to see Angler Public Input Needed, if the following boils your blood!

It's high time we brought NOAA's recreational catch estimates under control. MRIP (the NOAA Marine Recreational Information Program, the way NOAA counts recreational catch data) was no good right out of the gate. Now it has now undergone two "Recalibration" events that have increased the recreational catch by astronomical amounts.

kids fishing for stripers
If we want our kids and our kids' kids to be able to keep striper fishing,we need NOAA to get accurate science into the mix.

It has become paramount that we understand and repair MRIP’s wild overestimates. “Catch," whether commercial, recreational, or both, is a truly important value for scientists assessing a fish population (“stock assessment” as they say in fisheries management). Commercial catch is sold by the pound and thus offers fairly solid catch data, save what small percentage is back-doored. Because recreational catch is estimated, it’s nowhere near as firm as commercial landings data.

With MRIP’s sudden meteoric rise in recreational catch, fisheries scientists think now-huge recreational catch for many species of fish must be supported by higher populations of those fish. I'm talking about millions and millions of pounds of recreational catch that never happened. Scientists’ previous stock assessments would not support recreational catches as shown in MRIP’s current recreational catch data. Yet fisheries managers must (by law) accept MRIP’s catch estimates as "the best available science." If our catch is no longer X, but now XX, then the live population we "took" those fish from at sea must also no longer be XX, but now XXX.

Fisheries Numbers Games

How have these numbers risen? We’ve just witnessed our flounder stock assessment climb. That is, scientists say the flounder population must be much higher than previously thought, mostly owing MRIP’s recent recreational catch estimates. We could not possibly have taken as many flounder as MRIP claims, had the original population assessment been correct. And, because recreational fishers are already “catching more,” commercial fishers were given a 49-percent increase in flounder. Only a small percentage of MRIP’s asserted recreational landings are factual. However, any new quota given commercial fishers will – I promise – become fish sold across a dock.

I wonder what happens to a fluke stock assessment when you back 11 million pounds of catch out? Probably makes that population appear a lot smaller. It's very likely the sea bass catch from 2017 is over 10 million pounds too high, and always at least five million pounds too high. Wonder what happens to a smaller-than-they-thought population when commercial catch is jacked-up? Hmmmm... I think we've been there before. It was in the 1980s.

Fisheries science stock assessments are now so misled by poor MRIP data, we have no idea how much damage is being done by raising population estimates and increasing quotas, based on untrue recreational catch values.

Amazing Math

MRIPs’ predecessor, the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey (MRFSS) estimated marine recreational catch in the early 1980s. Here are some striped bass catch numbers (including all throwbacks) to illustrate the rise in MRIP's numbers. MRIP has had two recalibrations sending catch sky high. In 2004 we were first told the total was 10,048,000 rockfish by MRFSS. In 2012 MRIP replaced MRFSS. That same 2004 estimate rose to 11,055,000 at MRIP’s launch. Then during MRIP’s two recent recalibration events that catch has moon-shot to 24,766,000. That's a 147-percent increase.

MRIP recalibrations have our total recreational striper catch at 27 million both in 2016 and 2017, and 25 million in 2018. Now, because NOAA's fishery scientists assign a nine-percent "recreational discard mortality" (fish that die on release – a number I think too high), with MRFSS estimates the total discard mortality might have been pushing 800,000. But with current MRIP estimates those fish that died without ever swimming in hot oil are above two million. Everyone in management is wildly arm-waving: "Oh no!! The discard mortality!!"

Gosh, I bet MRIP's recent recalibrations have something to do with that…

  • It is not true that 1.6 million pounds of cod crossed New York’s recreational docks from private boats in hearty winter weather, yet their party-boat fleet didn’t get in on it. There’s no chance that happened.
  • It is not true the average size of shore-caught stripers in CT was 19.6-pounds, yet next door in RI it was 33.8-pounds, in MA it was 33.4-pounds, and the grand prize for “average” shore-caught stripers, in RI it was an amazing 45.1 pounds!
  • It is not true Maryland’s shore anglers caught more than three years-worth of Maryland party- and charter-boat sea bass – and they averaged 1.4-pounds apiece. Impossible!
  • It is not true that in Delaware last year sea bass caught from shore averaged 1.9-pounds.

All in all? There's virtually no truth at all in MRIP's catch estimates. “Recalibration” indeed.

I've asked for years and years to have “Bayesian Stops” put on MRIP's values. A Bayesian stop is most simply where a statistical value cannot exceed a certain number. As it stands, there appears to be no catch considered impossible by MRIP.

Everywhere I look I see bad recreational catch estimates throwing up so much smoke, the truth of our many tasks in fisheries restorations cannot be seen. Seafloor habitat restoration/creation, means of manipulating spawning production for best result – shoot, we've yet to even officially figure out the that ocean has turned green.

There's always a battle over recreational regulation. Always. And it's a heck of a distraction. Good science step aside – bad statistics own the process. It’s high time we had clarity where recreational catch is concerned. There has to be a way to test MRIP. If NOAA’s going to call it "scientific information" then it must be testable.

NOAA needs to fix MRIP or be done with it.

- By Captain Monty Hawkins, Morning Star Fishing