If you’ve been recreationally fishing long enough, there is a good chance that you’ve been intercepted at a boat ramp or dock by staff from the local state marine resource agency and asked a few questions about your fishing trip. The staff member may have asked if they could see the fish you caught or even asked if they could take biological samples. For commercial fishermen, dockside intercepts by port agents are common, and these provide additional catch information and biological samples. But with the spread of coronavirus, these recreational and commercial intercepts came to a halt earlier this year.
Who is responsible for collecting fisheries data? How will these gaps in data collection be addressed? Fisheries data used for management are collected at the state, regional and federal level and include both fishery-dependent and fishery-independent sources. Fishery-dependent data come from commercial and recreational fishermen, including for-hire fishermen. Fishery-independent data are collected from at-sea surveys, where scientists onboard research vessels use a variety of gear, including traps, longlines, and even video cameras to collect data.
As fishery managers, the Council does not conduct research or collect data. Council members rely on data from multiple data sources in the decision-making process.
Dockside Data from Fishermen
To better understand impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic to fishery-dependent data collection, we reached out to Geoffrey White, Director of the Atlantic Coastal Cooperative Statistics Program (ACCSP). The Program involves 23 state, regional, and federal agencies responsible for fishery-dependent data collection along the Atlantic coast, working in partnership to provide consistency in data collection. We spoke with Geoff in late April. “It will take a little while to figure out what the impacts of this pandemic are to both commercial and recreational fisheries. We are data driven. We’re monitoring the gaps in data collection day by day and coordinating with our partner agencies to provide available data as possible,” explained White.
Geoff was quick to point out that although dockside sampling has been impacted for the safety of the field staff, fisheries data are still being collected, and noted the importance of electronic reporting. “Fish dealers continue to report electronically. We have those data and they will be analyzed when ready. In the Mid-Atlantic and New England, where for-hire electronic reporting is in place, those data are already showing changes in the number of fishing trips. All of these data points may be very important in assessing the impacts to the fisheries,” explained White.
In the South Atlantic, new For-Hire Electronic Reporting requirements have recently been approved that include weekly-reporting for federally permitted charter vessels. The new reporting requirements are currently scheduled to become effective Sept. 1, 2020. Larger, multi-passenger headboats now report electronically through the NOAA Fisheries Southeast Region Headboat Survey, one of the longest-running surveys, operating along the Atlantic since 1972. However, NOAA Fisheries continues to use paper logbooks for commercial reporting in the South Atlantic region. “The challenge with paper reports is that they may be delayed in data entry and will have to be processed, slowing down the ability to use these data,” said White.
Dockside intercepts in combination with mail surveys are used to collect catch and effort data for recreational fisheries through NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Recreational Information Program. “The partners involved in MRIP are very aware of the issues with dockside sampling,” explained White. He noted that the partners have been tracking the progression of COVID-19 since the beginning. “Our Rec Team leader has been in direct contact with NOAA and each state, assessing how to return to sampling based on state regulations, and adjusting field procedures to allow for greater safety and social distancing,” explained White. “Of the 160 people from Maine to Georgia that perform dockside interviews with MRIP funding, many are hourly employees. State staff on MRIP surveys are well-trained and we need to keep them available. Therefore, NOAA and ASMFC [Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission] provided guidance to the states to continue supporting trained staff and survey-related tasks to maintain readiness to resume sampling as soon as possible.”
Geoff explained that the mail survey component of MRIP to collect information on fishing effort continues for shore and private anglers, so those data will be available. “Anecdotal reports on recreational fishing activity have been highly variable from the private boat sector,” said White.
“ACCSP provides tools for coordinated data collection, and fisheries-dependent input data for the stock assessment and management process at the Council, Commission, and State levels,” said White. “I support moving forward by looking at data, evaluating impacts through the established data collection and assessment processes. We don’t yet know how this could impact annual quotas because we don’t know how long this is going to last,” explained White. “There is a desire to minimize the impacts to both fishermen and the resource.”
No Social Distancing at Sea
“Our staff took their microscopes home and are continuing to do their lab work remotely, processing biological samples for age and reproductive information and other job duties,” said Dr. Marcel Reichert, a Senior Scientist with the SC Department of Natural Resources. “For now, we have been able to keep up with our work producing data and conducting analyses for stock assessments. I am extremely proud of my staff.”
Things get a bit more complicated when discussing offshore research cruise schedules with the safety of scientists and staff a primary concern amid the pandemic. “There is no good way to practice social distancing onboard a research vessel at sea for a week to 10 days at a time,” explained Reichert. “Our spring trawl survey cruise for King and Spanish Mackerel was canceled this year. This is one of three surveys. Summer cruises start in July and no decision has been made. Same with this fall.”
As manager of the Coastal Research Section of the Marine Resources Research Institute, Dr. Reichert also oversees the Southeast Reef Fish Survey, a comprehensive program involving several different research vessels and sampling programs operating along the Southeast coast, with efforts combined into a single database. These fishery-independent data are especially valuable for managing species in the Council’s snapper grouper complex, including Black Sea Bass, Vermilion Snapper, Red Snapper and Red Grouper. Dr. Reichert noted that research cruises for the Southeast Reef Fish Survey scheduled to begin in April were canceled through May. “There is a great deal of uncertainty right now. If we are delayed through September, we would have no or very little fishery-independent data for 2020. This would be the worst-case scenario.”
“It is a difficult situation. If we don’t collect data this year, we don’t have the samples,” said Reichert. “But we may start thinking about how to collect data in another manner. Everyone is trying to think outside the box. We aren’t making decisions in isolation. Our work is coordinated with NOAA Fisheries Southeast Fisheries Science Center, and we’re all trying to think of ways to fix this. It won’t be for lack of trying.”
Dr. Reichert explained that because of funding restrictions, there is a backlog of life history samples yet to be processed. “Because we aren’t going into the field for now, we can work on samples that will help future stock assessments. We aren’t sitting on our hands. It doesn’t mean we’re out of work,” said Reichert. “We just don’t know where our efforts are going to be this year. Everyone is ready to go to sea, but only if we can do so safely.”
As states begin to slowly reopen and fisheries start to ramp up this spring and summer, those that collect, disseminate and use fisheries-dependent and independent data will continue to seek ways to safely resume data collection efforts and assess the impacts of the pandemic to fisheries data collection and management. Please do your part to help by cooperating if intercepted at the boat ramp or dock, completing a mail survey if received, or voluntarily reporting recreational trips through MyFishCount.
A Closer Look at the Southeast Reef Fish Survey
The Council receives periodic updates on the Southeast Reef Fish Survey. Take a look at the 2019 SERFS Update Presentation to see what gear is used, how video cameras on traps are being used to supplement observations, see sampling locations, find out the most encountered species of the more than 47,000 fish collected, and see abundance trends for many snapper grouper species.[Return to the Newsletter]