Improving Fisheries-Dependent Data Collection

Recreational fishing is a vital component of Florida’s economy, and along Florida’s east coast, reef fishes and coastal pelagic species are popular targets for boat anglers fishing in the Atlantic Ocean. However, little is known about where recreational fishing effort is focused or the biological composition of the catch. Stock assessments rely on information about the size and age composition of fish that are removed from the population to evaluate the long-term sustainability of recreational fisheries. The Fisheries Dependent Monitoring (FDM) program, a subsection of FWRI’s Marine Fisheries Research program, has implemented a three-year study that started in January 2017 to develop a biological sampling program to improve stock assessments in the South Atlantic for popular recreational targets, including snappers, groupers, sea bass, triggerfish, mackerels, dolphin, wahoo, amberjacks, and other managed species. FDM relies on the voluntary cooperation of recreational anglers and for-hire vessel operators throughout the state to collect this vital information.

The primary source of recreational fishery statistics in the South Atlantic region is the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP). The MRIP produces bi-monthly estimates of recreational catch, including the numbers of fish released or harvested by anglers fishing from private boats and charter boats. However, for fisheries with short seasons, strict harvest limits, or species that are not frequently targeted, the survey has low sample sizes. Furthermore, age structures and sex ratios are not collected through MRIP, and details about where fish are caught from is limited to large geographic areas such as the east versus west coast of Florida, and state-managed waters versus Exclusive Economic Zones.

man collecting fin clip from fish

A researcher collects a fin clip from a cobia that will contribute to a genetic study of migratory stocks in the Atlantic. These fish were caught by recreational anglers outside Ponce Inlet during the spring cobia migration.

In the Gulf of Mexico, separate data collection programs for the biological composition of recreational catch independent of the MRIP have contributed to improved stock assessments for Red Snapper and other managed species; however, long-term funding in South Atlantic states is currently limited to a program for federally permitted headboats (large for-hire fishing party vessels), which represents a small portion of total recreational fishing effort. This new pilot study on the east coast of Florida is funded by the National Marine Fisheries Service, Southeast Regional Office with a competitive grant awarded through the Marine Fisheries Initiative (MARFIN). The objective of this research is to develop new statistically valid survey methods that may be used to supplement data collected through the MRIP survey and provide enhanced biological data to assess important managed fish stocks in the South Atlantic region.

The South Atlantic region includes approximately 1,200 miles of coastline from North Carolina through the Florida Keys, roughly half of which are included in the study area for this project. The east coast of Florida is the area where the majority of recreational landings occur for many species targeted in this study. Biologists located at FWRI field labs from Jacksonville to the Florida Keys are employed as part of this study, and samples they collect are being shared with researchers throughout FWRI’s Marine Fisheries Research program, as well as other agencies, and are contributing to multiple projects. Gonad tissues are collected for a special study on the reproductive biology of gag grouper in Florida, conducted by FWRI’s Fish Biology group. Age structures collected during this work are either processed by FWRI’s Age and Growth Lab, or provided to the National Marine Fisheries Service for age and growth analyses. These samples will contribute to age-based stock assessments for the South Atlantic through the Southeast Data Assessment and Review (SEDAR). Genetic samples will also contribute to a study of migration and population dynamics for cobia in the Atlantic. Other samples are collected from a variety of snapper and grouper species and processed by FWRI’s Fish Biology Genetics Lab to improve our understanding of population boundaries between Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic fish stocks.

woman measuring fish

A researcher measures a blueline tilefish that was caught by an angler fishing from a charter vessel in Islamorada.

The primary research objectives of this project include:

  • Design and implement study of the private boat and charter boat segments of the recreational fishery on the Atlantic coast of Florida to collect biological samples, including length, weight, age structures and sex ratios from reef fishes and other managed species, and also collect trip-level data on area fished, depths fished, fishing methods, gear types, and characteristics of discards.
  • Work cooperatively with a representative panel of charter vessel operators throughout the region to sample trips that target Blueline Tilefish (Caulolatilus microps), Tilefish (Lopholatilus chamaeleonticeps) and snowy grouper (Epinephelus niveatus); compare size and age compositions to evaluate whether rare event trips are adequately sampled in a random biological sampling design; and recommend alternative sampling methods if necessary.
  • Process age structures from sampled fish in accordance with accepted standardized methods used throughout the region, provide sample weights, and calculate weighted length and age compositions that are representative of removals in the private boat and charter boat segments of the recreational fishery.
  • Evaluate results and provide recommendations for a biological sampling program that may be implemented on a region-wide scale to supplement existing fishery dependent monitoring of recreational effort and catch in the South Atlantic.

The FDM team of fisheries biologists has extensive experience conducting large-scale fishery dependent surveys throughout the state of Florida. FWC fisheries researchers are active participants in SEDAR data workshops and regional organizations charged with coordinating data collection and data sharing and routinely provide fishery-dependent data and analyses for use in regional stock assessments. All research methods, data and products from this project will be shared with future SEDARs to improve stock assessments and monitor the recovery of overfished stocks to ensure that fishing levels remain sustainable.