Expert Report

Review of Recreational Fisheries Survey Methods (2006)

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

Recreational fishing in the United States is an important social and economic component of many marine fisheries, with an estimated 14 million anglers making almost 82 million fishing trips in 2004. Although each individual angler typically harvests a small number of fish, collectively these sport fisheries can take a significant fraction of the yearly catch, and the large number of anglers and access points makes monitoring recreational fishing much more difficult than monitoring commercial fishing. This report reviews the types of survey methods used to estimate catch in recreational fisheries, including cooperative state and federal programs, and finds that both telephone survey and onsite access components of the current monitoring systems require improvements in design or implementation. This report recommends the establishment of a comprehensive, universal sampling frame with national coverage to facilitate data collection and the improvement in statistical analysis of the data and in the ways the data are communicated to recreational fishing groups.

Key Messages

  • ??The statistical properties associated with data collected through different survey techniques differ and often are unknown. The current estimators of error associated with various survey products are likely to be biased and too low.
  • A greater degree of coordination between federal, state, and other survey programs is necessary to achieve the national perspective on marine recreational fisheries that is needed.
  • A large number of complex technical issues associated with surveys of marine recreational fishing remain unsolved, and a significant investment in intellectual and technical expertise is needed.
  • Anglers need to have a basic understanding of the relationship between a statistically based sampling scheme and the frequency with which each of them is (or is not) contacted by a data collector.
  • Catch and release fishing (release of fish that survive capture) is increasingly common in many marine recreational fisheries. Although some fish survive capture and release, mortality may be high, in some cases exceeding 50 percent.
  • If anglers believe that their input is influencing the design and use of surveys, they are more likely to be satisfied with those surveys than otherwise.
  • If anglers understand the basic purposes and decisions to which recreational fishing survey data are being applied and how those data are interpreted and used, they are more likely to feel confident that the approaches used are legitimate and are more likely to participate willingly and provide valid information
  • Many of the independent surveys conducted by the states, as well as state-run surveys that are components of the MRFSS, are different from each other and from the central MRFSS in important ways, including sampling, data collection, and preparation of estimators.
  • Marine fisheries management goals, objectives, and context have changed since the MRFSS was begun in 1979. Management decisions are often made at finer spatial and temporal scales than they were earlier, the mix of recreational and commercial fishing has changed for many areas and species, and stock-assessment models now make greater use of data from recreational fisheries.
  • Marine recreational fishing is a significant source of fishing mortality for many marine species and that adequate scientific information on the nature of that mortality in time and space is required for successful management of those species.
  • Offsite sampling methods that rely on telephone interviews are complicated by the increasing use of cellular telephones, especially in surveys of residents of coastal counties. This is because cellular telephones are not restricted to a geographic region as are landline telephones.
  • Onsite methods fail to intercept anglers who have private access to fishing waters or intercept them only sporadically.
  • Some states have more complete information than others, and in the states that have no saltwater license, there is no list of saltwater anglers. The lack of a universal sampling frame (registry or license requirement) for all saltwater anglers is a major impediment to the development of a reliable and accurate survey program.
  • The MRFSS is in need of additional financial resources so that technical and practical expertise can be added to assist in a major overhaul of the design, implementation, and analysis of data from the MRFSS.
  • The MRFSS was not designed with human dimensions data (i.e., collection of social, behavioral, attitudinal, and economic data) in mind.
  • The committee concludes that users' concerns about the use of the MRFSS in fishery management are justified by the above mentioned weaknesses, but they also result from inadequate communication and outreach on the part of the MRFSS managers at NMFS.
  • The correct identification of fish species, especially in places with diverse fish faunas, is a difficult challenge, both for many anglers and for those conducting surveys. Incorrect identification obviously has the potential to lead to incorrect conclusions from survey data.
  • The current methods used in the MRFSS for sampling the universe of anglers and for determining their catch and effort are inadequate.
  • The designs, sampling strategies, and collection methods of recreational fishing surveys do not provide adequate data for management and policy decisions.
  • The estimation procedure for information gathered onsite does not use the nominal or actual selection probabilities of the sample design and therefore has the potential to produce biased estimates for both the parameters of interest and their variances.
  • The existing random digit dialing (RDD) survey suffers in efficiency from the low proportion of fishing households among the general population and may allow bias in estimation from its restriction to coastal counties only.
  • The for-hire sector of marine recreational fisheries (i.e., charter, guide, and head boat operations) is more like a commercial sector than it is like the private-angler sector.
  • 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.