- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 20, 2005

Everybody wants to know how many saltwater fishermen there are and how much they catch. Self-appointed “experts” and critics have even suggested that recreational anglers are putting a major dent into fish populations, but they never utter a single word about commercial fish netters who, I suppose, are the pillars of society who wouldn’t do a bit of harm to anything.

The fact is that nobody knows how large the number of recreational anglers really is. And nobody has even an inkling about the fish we catch. Most of it is guesswork, including the larger catches of the commercial segment, because a.) there are not enough police around to check and b.) there’s so much lying, cheating and misrepresenting of fish catches going on that the word guesswork isn’t out of place.

What worries me is that in 40-plus years of fishing I’ve only been approached once by a marine policeman to see how many fish I’d caught. I’ve had water cops do safety checks, worry about whether I had a signaling device, a throwable safety cushion or ring, life jackets and fire extinguishers. But fish? No. My large circle of fishing pals will back me on this. Most of them never have been checked. We suspect that a majority of what is believed to be more than 60million anglers — fresh and saltwater — has similar experiences.

So here’s the Recreational Fishing Alliance, a national political action organization, that says it represents recreational fishermen and the recreational fishing industry on marine fisheries issues. The RFA appeared before the National Academy of Sciences National Research Council to present its ideas on improving recreational fisheries data collection.

Then there’s the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a multi-state group that sets catch quotas and establishes minimum sizes for the various states’ tidal fisheries departments to follow. The ASMFC also is interested in how much fishing effort is put forth by saltwater sport anglers. It says, “Conducting a survey to account for the fishing effort of tens of millions of anglers is an ambitious undertaking, and the Atlantic Coastal Cooperative Statistics Program is exploring options for making that task more cost-effective.”

In 1998, the ACCSP Coordinating Council agreed that the long-term goal of the program would be to conduct fishing effort interviews from “a universal sampling frame” rather than random-digit dialing of coastal county households.

To do this, they might want to get angler contact information from state license records, then conduct telephone interviews with anglers concerning recent fishing activity.

Good luck with that one because so many of us prefer to keep our phone numbers private and unlisted, lest we be constantly bugged by unwanted pitches from aluminum siding salesmen.

Another problem is that most northeastern U.S. states have no saltwater fishing licenses — hence no records of fishermen. In addition, some states that have tidal-water licenses exempt fishermen from needing them if their activities are confined to shore and pier fishing.

Most fishing and conservation organizations, including the influential Coastal Conservation Association, agree that everyone should be licensed so a true count can be taken.

The RFA that says it represents us fishermen (although I’ve never been asked whether I wanted it to represent me) makes recommendations that would help the information gatherers.

It says funding should be increased for recreational data collection. “Angler expenditures generate more than $30.5billion in sales annually and $4.9billion in federal and state tax revenue,” says the RFA. It wants the federal government to make a financial commitment to recreational fisheries data that “is more reflective of this tremendous economic impact.”

It also recommends that the data collectors recognize the diversity within recreational fisheries. “Recreational data collection programs must recognize that not everyone fishes for the same reason,” says the RFA, “therefore, participation is not linear with catch. Managers cannot assume a constant catch rate across the board for all anglers.”

The RFA wants the charter fishing sector to be more involved in data collection.

I can hear Maryland captains screaming now. “Everybody wants us to keep records and make out report cards,” said one. “Why can’t these eggheads leave us be?”

Finally, the RFA suggests that whenever recreational catch estimates are made, weather data must be incorporated because the weather can greatly affect fish catches.

You can say that again, RFA.

Meanwhile, I’d be happy as a clam if all those data collectors could come up with a 90 percent accuracy rate on commercial fish catch data. Forget being right on the money. I’ll settle on 90 percent. Currently, they’re not even half right.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column every Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com.

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