WASHINGTON — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Wednesday announced that it's using a new way to estimate the amount of fish caught by recreational saltwater anglers on the Atlantic Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, the result of years of work on how to make the numbers more accurate.
The new estimates will have an impact on millions of fishermen and those who make a living from recreational fishing. Eastern and Gulf coast fish-management groups will use the estimates and other information about fish populations to make decisions about limits on catches of many species of fish, such as striped bass in the mid-Atlantic and red snapper in the Gulf.
"Better, more accurate estimates of anglers' catch are important to sustainable management of fisheries," said Eric Schwaab, NOAA's acting assistant secretary of commerce for conservation and management.
It's not easy to measure the catch from an estimated 11 million U.S. saltwater anglers, Schwaab said. Those estimates are based on sample dockside and phone interviews.
The new methods address problems found in a National Research Council study finished in 2006. Congress required NOAA to improve the estimates in 2007.
Schwaab said the process took so long because it involved designing new approaches, testing them, getting an outside review and crunching the numbers. "We didn't want to rush into something that would not fully address the problems," he said.
Mac Currin, a recreational fisherman in Raleigh, N.C., is a member of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which is responsible for the management of fish stocks within the 200-mile limit of the Atlantic off North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and east Florida. He said the new way of estimating "is a much better animal than what we had before."
"The more precise data you have, the more finely you can tune the models, and the more finely you can tune the annual catch limits," said Currin, a fishing school owner and former biologist for the state government and North Carolina State University.
NOAA revised its catch estimates for the past eight years for nearly 500 fish stocks using the new statistical methods. It found no single trend. The catch amount was more than previously figured for some species and less for others.
The agency said that the changes in estimation procedures included taking into account some variables that would skew the numbers if they were left out — such as differences in the amount of fishing occurring at various times of the day.
"It's a great first step," because the new procedures make the estimates much more accurate, said Libby Featherston, the deputy director of fish conservation for Ocean Conservancy, based in St. Petersburg, Fla. She said her group wants NOAA to go further and find ways to get the estimates to fisheries managers faster. Some researchers have tested ways of replacing paper reports, such as an iPhone app and electronic logbooks on boats for hire.
"Now the statistical method is sound, and it's been thoroughly reviewed," said Jay Breidt, a statistics professor at Colorado State University who participated in the National Research Council study and helped develop the new methods.
The West Coast, Alaska and Hawaii use different survey and estimation methods. NOAA said in a statement that it was working with agencies in that region to see if changes were needed.
ON THE WEB:
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY