Counting saltwater fish has always been a problem. Certainly, it’s not easy – fish move around, aren’t easy to see underwater in the first place, and don’t exactly stand up and raise their fins so we can get a head-count. Fisheries scientists have always done their honest best to figure out how many fish of a particular species are swimming in the ocean, and we don’t want to denigrate their efforts. And one would think it would be a bit easier to count how many fish people take out of the ocean, as opposed to how many are actually out there. Apparently not, because the process by which the government counts how many fish we recreational saltwater anglers harvest, the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) has gone from providing regulators an unreliable best-guess to giving them numbers that are impossibly and blatantly false.
Remember, MRIP data was part of the massive red snapper fiasco that led to a revolt among the Gulf states. Recreational anglers and state administrators knew the numbers were junk, and were ruining the fishery from both management and business perspectives. The same is happening from coast to coast. The latest example is the east coast striped bass fishery, where according to MRIP’s numbers recreational anglers in Maryland in one recent season caught a total of 16 striped bass per minute of daylight, (600,000 in 60 days with an average of 10 hours of daylight per day, or 10,000 fish per day), every minute, during March and April. Mind you, in March and April in that part of the nation a large percentage of days are windy, cold, and un-fishable. And up until the last week of April the season is closed, so it’s only a handful of dedicated catch-and-release anglers who go fishing in the first place. MRIPs numbers not only don’t pass the sniff test, they are a blatant impossibility.
Captain Monty Hawkins, who has run a party boat and been hip-deep in management issues for over 30 years, sums it up best in his article Good Science Step Aside. In it he points out dozens of impossibilities in MRIP numbers in multiple saltwater fisheries, and illustrates how MRIPs own estimations have gone up as much as 147-percent during “recalibration” events. That means they went back and changed their old estimates of the numbers of fish caught in prior years, sometimes going back as far as 2004. As they change those numbers on paper, recreational anglers can magically go from harvesting an acceptable amount to over-harvesting – in the blink of an eye, without one single additional fish being dropped into a cooler.
MRIP is broken beyond all repair. We’ve already seen the impact in the red snapper debacle, and it’s going to hit home in more fisheries sooner rather than later. NOAA needs to ditch MRIP entirely – now.