Travis Cooke

May 16, 2018

Revamping a Key Conservation Funding Program So There Are More Hunters to Pay In

With participation in hunting declining, an important source of conservation funding is also at risk—unless we can invest more in recruiting the next generation of sportsmen and women

Did you know that every year, hunters contribute more than $700 million to state wildlife conservation efforts? That’s right—for more than 80 years, sportsmen and women have been overwhelmingly responsible for the health of fish and wildlife populations in America.

At the start of the 20th century, several wildlife species were imperiled, with few safeguards in place for dwindling populations. Recognizing that inaction may result in not only the mass extinction of America’s wildlife but also our pursuit of wildlife, hunters decided to take matters into our own hands.

In 1937, with support from the nation’s earliest sportsmen’s organizations, Congress passed the Pittman-Robertson Act, which created the Wildlife Restoration program. Since then, more than $10 billion in excise taxes on shooting and archery equipment have been distributed to state wildlife agencies for wildlife conservation projects, hunter education courses, and public access improvements. In most states, Pittman-Robertson is the only source of funding for fish and game agencies.

But recent data paints a grim picture for the future of hunting and wildlife conservation.

Uncomfortable Numbers

The most recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service five-year study on fishing and hunting participation and spending shows troubling long-term trends that should give us all pause.

Between 2011 and 2016, the number of hunters declined by 16 percent—from 13.7 million to 11.5 million people. Additionally, the hunting population aged slightly, while the average number of days hunters spent afield decreased from 21 to 16. And, perhaps most distressing for hunters relying on healthy wildlife populations, spending on hunting equipment dropped 8.6 percent, from $14 billion to $12.8 billion.

Fishing is the most popular outdoor recreation activity in 47 congressional districts, according to new data from the Outdoor Industry Association. Hunting doesn’t rank in the top three for a single district.

Clearly, maintenance of the status quo should be off the table.

Taking Aim at the Issue

Fortunately, our elected officials are making efforts to remedy this situation. On May 8, the House Natural Resources Committee unanimously approved a bill introduced by Rep. Austin Scott to modernize the Pittman-Robertson Act by allowing states to spend some of these funds on direct efforts to recruit, retain, and reactivate hunters. A companion bill from Sen. Jim Risch has strong bipartisan support and co-sponsorship.

If passed into law, this could boost R3 efforts through mentoring and outreach via television or even social media—you know, where the younger generations spend their time.

“With this legislation, the current generation of sportsmen and women has a chance to leave a lasting legacy on the footprint of conservation—much like hunters did in 1937, when Pittman-Robertson was passed,” says Cyrus Baird, programs director for the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports. “By allowing state fish and wildlife agencies more flexibility to use P-R funds to recruit, retain, and reactivate hunters, we are ensuring the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation will remain effective for generations to come.”

A Tackle Box for Information

Champions of the “P-R Mod” effort are fairly sure that legislative changes will be worth it, because the model has already been successful on the fishing side. The Dingell-Johnson Act created the program that distributes excise taxes on boating and fishing equipment to the states for fish and habitat conservation, but with one key difference: Every year, about $12 million in Sport Fish Restoration funds go towards national angler R3 efforts.

This has led to programs like Take Me Fishing, the incredibly helpful initiative that provides resources for beginning anglers looking to purchase a license, tie a lure, identify a walleye, or read up on their state boating laws. Take Me Fishing has also partnered with state fish and wildlife agencies to reach out to Americans who are underserved and underrepresented in the fishing industry.

This is all made possible by Sport Fish Restoration funds and has been critical in growing fishing participation numbers and the economic impact of anglers across the country. Between 2011 and 2016, the angling population grew by 2.7 million people, while spending on fishing equipment increased by more than 36 percent.

The Bottom Line

As hunters, a portion of our purchases goes back to all wildlife—not just the species that hunters care about. And we have shown time and again that we are willing to pay even more to see fish and wildlife habitat thrive. But it won’t be enough unless we swell our ranks at the same time.

Given the foundational role hunters play in wildlife conservation, we should be bold in our pursuit of efforts to recruit, retain, and reengage America’s hunters for the next generation. Bringing Pittman-Robertson up to date is one pragmatic way to do that.

 

Top photo courtesy of Tim Donovan. 

Second and third photos courtesy of Northwoods Collective. 

8 Responses to “Revamping a Key Conservation Funding Program So There Are More Hunters to Pay In”

  1. Marian Ryan

    If we are serious about solving this problem, there needs to be a way for other outdoor enthusiasts to provide funding via purchases of outdoor gear like camping equipment, tents, binoculars, etc.. Non-consumptive users dramatically outnumber hunters.

    • ….and they’ve been freeloading for years. It’s aboht time they share in the burden of protecting and restoring wild places and the creatures that call them home.

  2. Gold Toy Box

    I’ve tried to find a list of specific items (via google) that are taxed by the Pittman-Robertson Act without much luck. I always wonder when I see non hunters in the woods and wonder what they pay if any on their equipment?

  3. Brian

    The Dingell-Johnson model that includes the R3 efforts looks promising. However, I have a hard time believing paid “television or even social media” will recruit more hunters. It’s all about access, access, access. Why would we divert limited funds from research, surveys, management of wildlife and/or habitat, and acquisition or lease of land, just to line the pockets of facebook and the like? If this is a pilot program fine, but we need a sound calculation on cost-per-hunter-acquisition here.

    – How much does it cost to recruit a hunter?
    – How much does each new hunter in turn contribute per season vs estimated lifetime value to the Pittman-Robertson fund?

    Being a public land hunter, I was surprised to read in the 2016 FHWAR that 85 percent of hunters hunted on privately-owned land (64 percent exclusively so). However, The largest single drop from in hunting expenditures from 2011 to 2016 is $6b in the ‘other’ category—a category that includes expenditures for lands owned and lands leased.

    Comparing 2011 vs 2016 paints an interesting picture. Leased land actually grew in expenditures from $1.1b in 2011 to $1.4b in 2016, while the total acreage dropped from 420m to 131m. That’s a 289% increase in price-per-acre from $2.66 in 2011 to $10.34 in 2016.

    Owned land expenditures dropped drastically from 6b to 1.6b. I guess once you buy land you’re less likely to buy it again in the future.

    All this is to say, in the absence of good public land access for hunting and a Byzantine bureaucracy of clunky .gov websites, people are incentivized to hunt private. And private land hunters that can, or are willing, to buy or lease are getting squeezed.

  4. Bureaucrats with remedial instruction programs and social media campaigns will not increase hunter recruitment
    If you want more of anything, increase habitat and repress predation.
    Works every time
    By opening easily accessible public land we could create many new opportunities for hunter success, interest and mentorship.
    Most states have thousands of acres in the Federal Refuge system
    If hunting is allowed at all it’s extremely restricted.
    Most refuges allow no trapping or predator hunting and much is closed to the public all together.
    This could be changed with little or no expensive at all.
    Simply ease restrictions and allow public hunting access on what is already public land.

  5. Any any all efforts will be for naught as long as (for example) Clean Water Act protections are removed – especially those on wetlands and headwaters. What good is recruiting more anglers if habitats are degraded and bad water quality makes fish unsafe for consumption?
    And I agree that excise taxes should be placed on items that nonconsumptive users of wildlife (birders, wildlife photographers, etc.) purchase; problem though is none of those things are “consumables” in the way that cartridges and arrows are. Unfortunately there’s no magic to be had.
    And I, for one, have a really hard time imagining members of “Generation X-box” getting up well before dawn to be in a duck blind at the start of a hunt. Or streamside when the trout begin to rise. Or packing into the backcountry. Or… One of the REAL roadblocks to getting kids outside is those addictive screens they (and we) stare at all day. Oh, and the fact that they’re all terrified of pretty much anything that flies, crawls, swims or walks on 4 legs.
    Of course the longterm issue was brought out a few years ago in a F&S (I think) article in which the author wrote that as the number of hunters declines, policy decisions on wildlife-related issues will be increasing made by non-hunters. Unlike some “Chicken Little” types who equate non- with anti-, the author was more sanguine; his point being that sportspersons who hunt/fish legally and ethically are the BEST illustrators of not only our shared heritage, but also of people who hold that heritage in the highest esteem. And it’s down to us to police ourselves and use programs like Operation Game Thief to weed out the bad apples.

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May 1, 2018

Checking In on Our Wishlist for Congress and DOI

Back in January, we came up with six New Year’s resolutions we wished Congress and DOI would make, and some progress has been made on more than half

As we enter the fifth month of the year, it’s a pretty good bet that most Americans have long since abandoned their New Year’s resolutions. In fact, according to U.S. News and World Report, 80 percent of resolutions fail by the second week of February.

But we’re still looking to Congress and the Department of the Interior to work through some serious conservation goals we’ve been eyeing since January. Here are the six New Year’s resolutions we hoped to see them make to improve hunting, fishing, and habitat, and updates on where these issues stand today.

Fix Our Forests

A looming budget deadline offered a great opportunity to finally fix the way we pay for catastrophic wildfires—and reform forest management to help prevent fires in the first place. We thought lawmakers should pass a comprehensive fire funding fix in the budget deal to stop taking funds from forest restoration programs like prescribed burning and removal of invasive species and diseased trees.

Status: Done! Congress came through for sportsmen and all who rely on access to Forest Service lands in passing a comprehensive fix for fire borrowing in the fiscal year 2018 spending bill in March. We were thrilled and relieved to see bipartisan support for many other provisions that will benefit fish and wildlife habitat, clean water, sportsmen’s access, and the outdoor recreation economy, but the fire funding fix is a truly defining achievement, which will ensure that the Forest Service can get back to the business of maintaining healthy habitat and excellent facilities.

Bulk Up Water Quality Efforts in the Farm Bill

Looking ahead to the new Farm Bill, we hoped it would be one that would strengthen and maintain funding for USDA conservation programs. The work done with these funds keeps tons of pollutants out of rivers and expands water conservation on farms, which improves river flows to support healthy fisheries, strong outdoor recreation businesses, and flourishing rural communities.

Status: Possible. In the coming weeks, the House of Representatives is expected to vote on the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018—otherwise known as the Farm Bill. This particular version of the bill is pretty contentious and not likely to be signed into law, but it proposes doubling the scope of the Environmental Quality Incentive Program to $3 billion. Of the many features of EQIP, one of the most popular is the incentive for landowners and farmers to incorporate cover crops into their planting rotation, and this practice has some benefit for improving soil health and slowing the progress of polluted farm runoff.

Invest in Access on Private Land

With legislation as massive and far-reaching as the Farm Bill, we knew there would also be a unique opportunity to boost hunting and fishing access in areas where there are few, if any, public lands. If Congress could reauthorize and expand the popular Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program—the U.S. Department of Agriculture program that incentivizes landowners to open their property for public hunting and fishing access—the improved opportunities for hunters and anglers would create a draw in some rural communities that desperately need an economic boost.

Status: Signs look pretty good. There was bipartisan support for a standalone bill introduced in the House in February to reauthorize and enhance VPA-HIP. And though the House version of the Farm Bill did not include quite as much new funding for the program as we wanted, lawmakers have proposed a decent bump.

Defend the Clean Water Act

We were insistent that Congress should not make it easier for the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers eliminate a rule that more clearly defined the protections of the Clean Water Act. Americans overwhelmingly support protecting headwater streams and wetlands, which are critical to fish and waterfowl populations. Trimming down on regulation doesn’t have to mean leaving these foundational waters and rapidly disappearing wetlands vulnerable to pollution or destruction.

Status: Still trending in the wrong direction. The two-step repeal process has been ongoing since last year, despite broad public support for the 2015 Clean Water Rule’s benefits to fish and wildlife habitat. But Congress did not use legislative riders to waive any procedures or give the greenlight to move forward more quickly, which is a quiet win.

Image courtesy of Amanda Nalley/Florida Fish and Wildlife.

Modernize Marine Fisheries Management

For five years, the leading advocates of recreational fishing and conservation worked with policy makers to improve federal recreational fishing management by modernizing data collection and allowing more involvement from state agencies and anglers. These essential changes were included in legislation that passed the House Natural Resources Committee in December 2017 and headed to the House floor. As of the first of the year, the Senate had an opportunity to improve upon this legislation and ensure that the vital contributions—cultural, economic, and conservation efforts—of the recreational saltwater fishing industry are finally recognized in federal law and policy.

Status: Closer than ever before. At the end of February, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation overwhelmingly approved the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017, otherwise known as the Modern Fish Act. This legislation calls for critically important updates to the oversight of federal fisheries, by adding more tools to the management toolbox, improving data collection techniques, and examining some fishery allocations that are based on decades-old decisions. If passed into law, the Modern Fish Act would bring to fruition five years’ worth of input from the recreational fishing community and increase the level of trust between America’s 11 million saltwater anglers and federal fisheries managers.

Champion Conservation and Access Equally

Some of the best news of 2017 came out of the Department of the Interior, when Secretary Zinke asked agency leaders to identify and prioritize opening new hunting and fishing access to previously landlocked public lands and national wildlife refuges. While this is to be celebrated, we were anxious to see the DOI define a “conservation vision” for valuable habitats and hunting and fishing areas in 2018, to work in tandem with the vision that they have already established for expanding sportsmen’s access. This would include clear measures to recognize and conserve wildlife migration corridors, avoid or minimize impacts to habitat from development, plan locally to safeguard our best hunting and fishing areas, and allow conservation plans for greater sage grouse work as intended.

Status: TBD. In February, Zinke issued a Secretarial Order directing agencies to work toward better conservation of critical big game habitat, including migration corridors, stopover habitat, and seasonal ranges. And we’re hearing every assurance that the DOI will begin to make a broader pivot toward conservation now that they are satisfied with the direction we’re going on energy development. But the BLM is launching an amendment process for greater sage-grouse conservation plans that were settled in 2015—changes could affect 98 land-use plans for about 67 million acres across the West.

 

We originally posted “Six New Year’s Resolutions We Wish Congress and DOI Would Make” on January 5, 2018.

Joel Webster

April 24, 2018

GPS Technology Creates New Public Land Opportunities for Sportsmen and Policymakers

Using the industry-leading mapping software, TRCP and onX team up to make the case for a broader approach to public lands access acquisition

For Western hunters who depend on public lands, software from onX combined with a smartphone or a handheld GPS unit has changed the game. Showing a user’s real-time location in relation to tangled property boundaries, this technology allows sportsmen and women to hunt unmarked and isolated tracts of public land along rivers and roads without the risk of trespassing on private land.

Recognizing how transformative their mapping software has been, we’ve partnered with onX to illustrate a major challenge for public land hunters across the West, and how this technology might be used to change the game for public land policy as well. Here’s how.

In this image, a landlocked tract of BLM and state-owned lands in eastern Montana sits only a few hundred yards from the nearest publicly accessible road.

Still Locked Out of Our Public Lands

In many Western states, millions of acres of public lands remain “landlocked”—meaning they are rendered completely inaccessible by surrounding private lands. Historically, establishing legal access to these often small and remote parcels through easements, right-of-ways, or land acquisitions would not have been particularly useful, given the difficulties involved in identifying them and discerning their boundaries.

The modern GPS-equipped sportsman, however, can confidently make good use of small tracts of public land that might sit only a few hundred yards from a public road, if provided with a means of legal access across private tracts.

Officials in Washington, D.C., currently have at their disposal a powerful tool to do just that. Enacted in 1965, the Land and Water Conservation Fund is the primary source of federal revenue for acquiring new public lands and a critical program for expanding hunting and fishing access to Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land and water resources. It is incredibly popular among hunters and anglers, and it enjoys bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

While in the past, LWCF acquisition funds have generally been used to consolidate blocks of checker-boarded public lands, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service have utilized LWCF funds in recent years to work also toward establishing legal recreational access to currently landlocked parcels of public land. The current state of technology means that we now have more sophisticated means for doing so with tremendous opportunities for the average sportsman.

Photo courtesy of Tom Fowlks 

What’s more, the current administration has committed to improving sportsmen’s access. In September 2017, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke directed the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to produce plans for expanding hunting and fishing opportunities on public lands. The agencies were also specifically charged with identifying lands where access is currently limited or impossible via public roads or trails.

This is great news for public land hunters and anglers. But DOI’s focus on access is at odds with the precarious position of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Despite its many existing and potential benefits, the program will expire on September 30, unless reauthorized by Congress. We believe that the new opportunities to expand technologically assisted access to our public lands should inspire Congress and the administration to move LWCF reauthorization across the finish line as soon as possible.

Breaking Through

The TRCP and onX are convinced that securing public access to inaccessible public lands should be a priority among policymakers. That’s why we have partnered up to educate legislators and agency personnel on exactly how mobile technologies are changing the way people access our public lands.

As part of this effort, onX founder and CEO Eric Siegfried traveled to Washington, D.C., where he joined TRCP staff in meetings with officials at the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as staff at the White House Council on Environmental Quality and Office of Management and Budget.

Together, we impressed upon the agencies and decision makers how modern GPS technologies that enable the public to pinpoint the exact location of property boundaries have created new opportunities for both sportsmen as well as policymakers looking to expand public access. Using onX software to show how public land is locked up back home, we also explained the importance of LWCF to the ability of the federal government to continue opening inaccessible lands to the public.

We now require your help to convince the administration and your congressional delegation of the need to reauthorize LWCF as soon as possible. Without this critical program, most public land access and acquisition projects would not occur—and time is running out.

Take action here.

Chris Macaluso

April 9, 2018

How Fisheries Managers Respond When Trash Fish Get Trendy

Fisheries management can be influenced by the American appetite for (certain kinds of) seafood, which makes it even more important that the system works better for anglers

My brother Joey and I were weird, I guess. When we were kids, we loved to fish for sheepshead, which, at the time, were generally thought to be a “trash” fish and were despised by most Louisiana anglers.

Sheepshead are ugly by any objective standard. They have big, goofy buckteeth, gray and black skin, and a row of foreboding spikes along their dorsal fins. They’re also an absolute pain to clean. Some charter guides I knew when I was in my teens refused to even put them in the ice chest, for fear that they would wind up on the cleaning table along with the better speckled trout and redfish.

But I never agreed with sheepshead getting a bad rap. First of all, they fight like caged, rabid raccoons. And on our summer trips to Grand Isle or fall excursions to Cocodrie, the sheepshead aggressively ate a piece of shrimp or hermit crab on a jig head when the speckled trout wouldn’t cooperate, and they guaranteed that we had some fresh fish to go with our suppers of canned beans, and French bread.

Sure, you had to hack through some thick rib bones and tough scales to get a filet. But crabs are hard to clean, and I don’t know too many folks who consider boiled and steamed blue crabs to be “trash,” just because the meat is difficult to pick out.

Then, about 15 years ago, sheepshead started showing up on restaurant menus under the pseudonym “bay snapper.” Suddenly, a bunch of anglers who would never have kept an ugly, stubborn sheepshead were raving about how tasty their fish-of-the-day lunch special was.

Now, pretty much every restaurant in South Louisiana has sheepshead on the menu or as a fresh-fish special. I guess the cliché about one man’s trash being another man’s treasure applies.

 

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2013 National Survey
Tasty Reputation Prompts Adapted Management

I’m often struck by how frequently recreational and commercial fishermen are pitted against each other over a handful of “popular” fish because they taste good or they fight hard or simply because they are easy to catch. How many fish like sheepshead, once considered less desirable by both recreational and commercial fishermen, are out there? How can fishing for these species lessen the animosity that has been built over fish like red snapper?

I’m also dumbfounded, at times, by the argument that states are not as equipped to manage commercial fisheries as the federal government, especially when states have responded to the increased popularity of sheepshead with adapted management for both recreational and commercial harvest. And still we don’t fight over sheepshead at state commission meetings like we do over red snapper at the federally directed Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council.

State fisheries agencies generally do a good job of conservatively managing commercial and recreational fishing, which is one of the reasons the TRCP and many of its sportfishing partners support the Modern Fish Act—because it would increase the role that states play in federal management and data collection for recreational fishing.

 

CMac’s special recipe.
Cats, Carp, and Courtbouillon

Like sheepshead, there are other fish thought of as trash, simply by reputation. On a late-March trip to Grand Isle, my fishing buddies got to tie into a handful of gafftopsail catfish, another much-maligned, yet hard-tugging and good-eating saltwater predator. I kept the fish, despite some dirty looks, and I used the filets to make a catfish courtbouillon, a rich tomato-based stew my family ate on Good Friday.

Everyone said it was delicious. They had no idea they were eating trash, I guess.

Gafftops, unlike their cousins the hardhead catfish, aren’t bottom-dwelling scavengers. They strike lures as aggressively as redfish and speckled trout and fight every bit as hard. On a memorable day in late August a few years ago, several five-pound gafftops exploded on topwater plugs in the Grand Isle surf when I was aiming for specks. The surface boiled and my drag screamed as if a redfish or big trout had busted the bait. But when the fight was over, my friends looked in disgust at what was on the end of the line. Similar to the way sheepshead were looked at 30 years ago, some of my friends won’t even put a gafftop in the ice chest for fear of scorn at the cleaning table.

But the list of reformed trash fish is growing each year. Bonito were once only kept for cut bait and chum, but if the meat is taken care of, they are just as tasty as their blackfin tuna relatives. Even the dreaded invasive Asian carp is pretty tasty after being dredged in seasoned corn meal and dropped in hot grease. There are more than enough of them available for those who want to give them a taste.

 

Making the Most of Our Time on the Water

I’m not suggesting that I would give up on a good trout bite or a school of hungry redfish to chase down gafftops or throw chunks of hermit crabs at sheepshead. But, like many fishermen who have busy home- and work-lives, I like to catch something while I’m out there—I’m not going to turn down the opportunity to hook aggressive-striking, hard-pulling fish and keep a few of them for the grill or the fryer.

And I’m not suggesting that improving the management of popular species like red snapper or cobia is less important because there are other fish out there to catch. My point is that, too often, anglers fall into the trap of getting hung up on catching one fish or another, and it can lead to a less enjoyable time on the water if a particular season is closed or the target species doesn’t cooperate that day. It might be up to us to “dig in the trash” more often.

But as attitudes towards these fish evolve and change, it will be even more important that our system of federal fisheries management does not ignore recreational fishing—because restaurant trends will come and go, but the importance of predictable seasons to local outdoor recreation businesses will not.

 

Top photo by Anna Hesser via Flickr

Guest Blogger Brett Fitzgerald

March 30, 2018

There’s an Access Payoff for Reporting What Fish You Catch and Throw Back

Anglers who report catch data using the latest apps help fisheries managers adjust seasons in real-time, so why are some still resistant to sharing?

Recreational angler self-reported data has come a long way. As it has suddenly dominated many of the recreational fishery management discussions over the past year, one might think the concept has come out of nowhere. But the Snook and Gamefish Foundation (SGF) has been working on refining the process for almost a decade, and our work has provided some valuable results. The Angler Action Program (AKA iAngler), a service project of SGF, was born in 2010 after an historic cold event severely damaged a host of tropical Florida wildlife, including snook—a native and highly prized gamefish.

In response to the possible crisis, we partnered with Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to design and build a voluntary self-reporting database that would start to get a handle on just how hard the fishery was whacked by the extreme cold weather. Snook anglers—who range from passionate to completely obsessed—were an easy target for soliciting help.

There were many successes over the following years, most of them ‘firsts’ in the world of fishery management at the state level. After helping with the design of the database and angler survey, FWC left us to run and manage iAngler and its data. Participation was fairly high, with thousands of hours of snook-directed fishing trips reported within months of program initiation. FWC found data useful almost immediately in a few areas, particularly regarding data on the fish we let go, called ‘discards’ by researchers.

Within five years, iAngler was expanded to include all species of fish on a global range, and it was used directly in five different Florida stock assessments for snook, spotted seatrout, and red drum. This is the first time that data collected and managed by anglers was used in a state-level stock assessment.

Around that same time, a lab at the University of Florida began running some analysis of iAngler data and comparing it to numbers from the Marine Resources Information Program, which currently collects data for all federally managed fish species. Despite having some design flaws, especially where the program forces commercial models on recreational fisheries, MRIP is responsible for what has long been considered to be the “best available data” for use by federal agencies.

The UF studies focused on how many fish anglers are catching and how big the fish are. This is especially important with discards, as this is an area of fishery information where many species are ‘data poor,’ meaning whatever the best available data is, it ain’t enough.

In general terms, the UF study found that iAngler data in Florida did have some limitations, or biases, however for areas where enough anglers participated the data lined up nicely with MRIP.

Right around the time these very positive results of iAngler data analyses started rolling in, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) reached out to SGF to see if we could partner up with the goal of getting a better handle on the Atlantic Red Snapper situation. Similar to the Gulf of Mexico, recreational anglers have been reporting anecdotally that they are experiencing an explosion in the population of this prized fish, yet the season had been closed since 2014 in the South Atlantic because the current data and modeling suggest that the population is still in trouble. Managers understood that there is a problem, but until data collection was improved or at least changed, their hands were mostly tied.

This new partnership led to a reporting tool called MyFishCount, which will allow anglers in the South Atlantic to report their catches – keepers and discards, along with a host of other data points – by this coming summer.

A pilot program was launched during the 2017 Atlantic Red Snapper season, and the results were again very positive. Anglers were able to report a variety of aspects of their planned snapper fishing trips through the system, researchers were able to see the data in real-time, and managers reacted to the data nearly as fast.

For example, the 2017 red snapper season was originally set for six days over two three-day weekends. Through MyFishCount, biologists and managers were able to see that the vast majority of planned fishing trips never took place, because the weather was not favorable for offshore fishing on those dates. Using this information, SAFMC was able to open a third long weekend of fishing.

The point is that anglers were asked to contribute, and because they did, their data was put to immediate good use. In this case, it led to more fishing access.

Not for nothing, the weather on that third weekend was pretty horrible, too. But this is ok for anglers: It means that the estimated harvest over the full nine-day fishing season is unlikely to overestimate the fishing effort, which could have led to less access in years to come.

“This is one of the few instances where you have technology, industry, fishermen, and scientists all agreeing on one thing—that we need better data in the recreational fishery—and most of us are seeing a similar approach to reaching that goal,” says Dr. Chip Collier, an SAFMC fisheries biologist who has been involved with the MyFishCount project since its inception.

He and his staff are very excited to have a new and improved version of MyFishCount up and running before summer 2018, and it will be functional for a wide variety of fish species, not just red snapper. “One of the great things about having it ready before the summer is that will be able to show anglers what self-reporting actually looks like,” says Collier. “The ‘fear of the unknown’ can make a lot of people hesitant to take the first step towards getting involved, and this will help.”

“The amount of positive comments we’ve received from anglers who participated has been great, and it feels like it really gives a voice to management,” says Kelsey Dick, SAFMC’s fishery outreach specialist. “I have been very grateful to see people coming together and being supportive of this project.”

The benefits of self-reporting are many. Through this kind of reporting, managers and biologists will get a better understanding of angler behavior on the water.

“We don’t have enough time to interview a lot of recreational anglers, so we don’t really know if people are using descending devices, or circle hooks, or other behaviors.” Dick said.

Mass, real-time self-reported data opens the doors to these types of data streams and that is extremely critical when trying to get a handle on how to best set management rules for a given species in a given region.

For example, in 2017 MyFishCount anglers reported very low use of descending devices or venting tools in shallow water (less than 5%), yet a very high (over 90%) in deeper water. Without the opportunity to self-report behavior like this, Councils have no way of estimating how many anglers are taking extra measures to help ensure fish survive release. And when you are managing ‘data poor’ species such as red snapper, any uncertainty in the modeling usually translates to less access.

Still, with all indicators pointing in a very positive direction, there is a lot of work to be done, and it is going to take time. “Managing expectations across the board is hard,” says Dr. Collier. Fishermen, scientists, managers and the industry all want this issue solved.

It is going to take some time, but the more anglers that get involved now, the faster we can improve the system and expand the functional uses. This type of data is not yet ready to answer questions like overall effort or fish abundance – researchers first need to understand just how this information represents the fishing community at large. But the mindset has changed greatly over the past couple years, from ‘the data is no good’ to ‘we must understand and measure biases in data, then account for those biases.’ This is an extremely encouraging trend.

The Snook and Gamefish Foundation is working with The American Sportfishing Association, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and a host of other conservation and fishing industry groups, state and federal agencies to explore ways to better integrate self-reported data the use of technology to improve fisheries management.

Management is going to happen whether the data improves or not. So getting involved and reporting through iAngler now, no matter where you are, is a very important step for recreational anglers. It not only allows you to contribute immediately to a brighter fishing future, but also to keep tabs on how the technology is changing fishing behavior and management so you can help shape the direction in the future.

 

Brett Fitzgerald is the Executive Director of the Snook and Gamefish Foundation. He is also a contributing editor to Florida Sportsman Magazine, and a special education instructor in the Palm Beach County school system for where he promotes an academic curriculum through environmentalism and resource conservation. Fitzgerald is an avid guitar player, fly tyer, photographer and fisherman.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

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