By Yevgeniy Trapeznikov
WASHINGTON—Revisions to a federal program used to monitor recreational fisheries, such as the striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay, have failed to gain the trust of the recreational angling community despite the millions of dollars that have been spent so far, critics say.
For years the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been using a set of surveys to monitor how many fish are caught by anglers in the nation's coastal waters. But the way monitoring was conducted was not always efficient.
For example, in the 1980s, it took several years of fishing moratoriums from North Carolina to Maine to restore striped bass stocks.
Since the 1970s, NOAA has been using two survey tools to monitor fisheries. The first is a telephone survey - periodically calling coastal households to ask about fishing habits. The second is a so-called intercept survey - interviewing anglers at the dockside and checking their fish boxes to see what they caught.
NOAA has spent more than $50 million in the last seven years to establish a new program known as the Marine Recreational Information Program, a set of updated surveys intended to enhance the accuracy of the fisheries estimates. One key improvement has been the creation of a federal saltwater registry containing information about more than 11 million coastal anglers mainly registered through state licenses. And that's where part of the problem lies.
Tony Friedrich, of the Maryland chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, said that many anglers are hesitant to communicate requested information about themselves for fear that their personal data might be compromised.
"I am in mid-40s and I don't remember in my lifetime any time when there was more distrust for the government. People see these (paper forms) and think 'I don't wanna be in the registry. Why am I filling this out?'" said Friedrich, who was part of Maryland's effort to convince fishermen of the importance of the federal initiative.
He said that despite speaking at numerous chapter meetings, handing out pamphlets, talking to individuals, posting information online and in a newsletter, many couldn't understand what the government was going to do with the information.
In addition to skepticism about giving personal information, many in the angler community don't believe the new system will be any better than the old.
"If the government believes their data collection is not flawed, then it's time for the National Research Council to do another comprehensive review. Because I know for a fact that it's flawed," said Jim Hutchinson, who lobbies on Capitol Hill on behalf of The Recreational Fishing Alliance, a political action group representing recreational fishermen.
Hutchinson cites the fact that he has never been intercepted for the surveys as evidence of the system's flaws.
"I talk to people all the time who have never been intercepted, too. I am 47 years old and I've never been called on my phone, either," said Hutchinson, questioning the efficacy of NOAA's approaches.
According to 2012 estimates by the Department of Commerce, the industry was responsible for $58 billion in sales and supported more than 381,000 jobs.
Hutchinson said the actual estimates might be understated.
"They (Department of Commerce) base it (industry analysis) in part on recreational data collection. But if the recreational data collection is flawed, then, you're going to have a flawed economic study," Hutchinson said.
NOAA spokesman Forbes Darby said the surveyors, in part, rely on the information provided by the angling community.
Darby said the new survey would more carefully map fishing access points to improve the reliability of dockside interviews, as well as track how much fishing activity takes place at those points.
"That's how we define where to send our samplers, how much time they will spend at a given point based on the site characteristics," Darby said.
Darby said the administration realizes that no survey is perfect and there are potential biases that need to be accounted for.
Although NOAA said it would launch the new telephone and mail survey in 2015, the administration plans to run both old and new surveys simultaneously for a while to determine the effects of the method change.
When the National Research Council addressed "trust" issues in its 2006 review, it was recommended that NOAA engage the angler community more closely.
"No matter how well designed and implemented a marine recreational survey is, it will not fully succeed without the cooperation of anglers. Unless anglers believe that the survey is well designed and implemented and that it is being used intelligently to address appropriate management issues, they are unlikely to participate," said the council in its review.