Apr 5, 2024 - Economy

Recreational fishing has a data problem

Illustration of a fishing pole with $100 bill.

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Governing bodies across the East Coast are rolling out this year's limits on recreational saltwater fishing.

Why it matters: Some of those regulations are quite restrictive, and based partly on federal data that everyone knows is wrong.

  • Recreational fishing is no small business, generating over $100 billion annually in sales impacts and supporting nearly 640,000 jobs.

The big picture: Every year, assessments are made on the health of species, namely around how abundant a specific type of fish is, and how popular it is to catch.

  • When done right, the assessments are vital to preserving the country's fish stocks.
  • The goal is to prevent anglers from overfishing a species. They should exist in enough numbers to naturally sustain, if not grow, their natural population.
  • That job has fallen to NOAA, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, since at least 1979.

Between the lines: Collecting useful data is challenging.

  • Designed to replace a prior process that the National Academy of Sciences's research council called "fatally flawed," NOAA launched its recreational Fishing Effort Survey (FES) back in 2015.
  • It uses the responses it gets through this mailed survey to determine how much people fish. It then couples that information with other data estimating how much people catch when they fish, and uses those numbers to establish limits for the coming year.

The intrigue: The problem with NOAAs effort survey, is that fisherman have a tendency to ... well, embellish the truth.

  • Last summer, NOAA disclosed that respondents to the FES may be overestimating the amount of trips they took by as much as 30%–40%.
  • Part of the problem, NOAA noted, may be the sequence of questions the survey poses.

Limits made based on this data can include minimum size requirements, caps on the number of fish that can be kept, or also shortened seasons for a particular fish.

  • Especially onerous restrictions can have an outsized impact on some coastal economies, where charter captains and tackle shops depend on paying customers.

The impact: The episode has sparked anger from local communities who have long been skeptical of NOAA's assessments. Louisiana Congressman Garret Graves used the disclosure to call on the agency to defer to state-run data collection programs.

The bottom line: Finding a workable solution going forward will be vital, balancing important conservation needs with fairness to coastal economies.

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