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Call to Action: Fishery Data Out of Touch

Perspective: The process of determining catch rates of red and gag grouper is "indeed broken."

Call to Action: Fishery Data Out of Touch

Harvest of gag grouper has been off-limits since October 19 in the Gulf of Mexico, sparking inquiries into the methods used for calculating recreational landings.

  • Blair Wickstrom is Senior Editor of Florida Sportsman magazine.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA’s) inability to accurately estimate the number of fish in the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic Ocean. And it certainly won’t be the last.

But, if you want to see an increase in the number of gaffer mahi in the spring off the east coast of Florida, or get a chance to catch, and keep, a rusty belly gag grouper in the Gulf this year, then you better become acquainted with the people and process that could make it happen.

Managing federal waters, extending nine miles from the coast in the Gulf and three miles in the Atlantic, a select group of council members appointed by state governors busily try to make sense of staff-driven, computer-modeled data. This data provides the “best available scientific information” to guide decisions on fishing seasons and allowable catches.

fsctalogo
Submit your public comment regarding recreational red and gag grouper landings off Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Both the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic Fishery Management Council use NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) to collect recreational fishing data, which ultimately produces estimates of the total recreational catch.

For years, the prevailing sentiment at Florida Sportsman was to refrain from publicly challenging MRIP because it was deemed the sole source of the best available scientific data. However, it is now time to challenge MRIP.


When complicated computer models, run by well-schooled scientists, spit out results such as the recent findings indicating that pier fishermen caught 12 times more gag grouper than headboat (party boat) anglers last year, someone whose job it is to study that fishery should have immediately cried foul. Capt. Ed Walker, a west coast fishing guide, recreational angler, hook-and-line commercial fishermen, and also as of 2023 a Gulf of Mexico Council Member, said publicly that the gag catch estimates recently released are out of touch with reality.

Ed told me personally that MRIP produces grossly inaccurate catch estimates.


“It’s broken,” he said.

And when you look back at the pier fishing example and why it matters, the 106,000-pound estimate came from a single interview of an angler from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which when entered into the computer model concluded that there must have been 106,000 other pounds of gag grouper caught by shore anglers.

And this all took place during the 49-day season we had in 2023, accounting for one-third of our (recreational) total allowable catch in the entire Gulf of Mexico. Incredibly, the year before, MRIP concluded that zero gag grouper were caught by shore anglers. Why zero? Because no pier fishermen were interviewed, or in fishery management terms, were intercepted.

This process is indeed broken.


If you care about having a gag grouper season in 2024, the Council needs to hear from you. Just prior to the January 2024 Gulf Council meeting in Louisiana, word got out regarding the wild inaccuracies of gag and red grouper, prompting 321 people to send in public comments, setting a three-day record for the gag fishery.

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Capt. Walker said that the number of people who commented clearly made a difference.

Let’s make the 321 comments look like a trickle, a mere puddle preceding the impending flood. Unless the Council feels the need to update and change the current mode of estimating the number of fish in the sea, we’re doomed.

Garbage in, garbage out. Let’s throw out the garbage and bring in a better, locally sourced, and likely digital app to give us better reporting and more days fishing.


  • This column was featured in the April 2024 issue of Florida Sportsman. Click to subscribe.



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