For-Hire Electronic Logbook Reporting Pilot Project

Mike Nugent | Captain of the charter vessel Wrecklamation | President, Port Aransas Boatman Association
I don't think you're going to find a fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico any more skeptical than I've been over the years about that data that's been used to regulate for-hire saltwater fishing when we can fish, what our customers can catch, and what they can keep. But all the years of talking, arguing, advocating and meeting (and meeting and meeting) to figure out better ways to get that data looks like it's finally starting to pay off.

Now it's time for us for-hire owners and captains to step up to the plate.

A new approach to a longstanding problem
Starting September 1, a select group of Gulf of Mexico charter boat operators, myself included, will be the first to participate in a new project that could fundamentally change the way NOAA Fisheries collects data about the number of fishing trips we take, or what they call "effort," and the number, size and types of fish our customers land, keep and release, or the "catch."

The exact methods differ depending on what state you operate in, but since the 1970s, these numbers have been gathered through a combination of random telephone surveys of for-hire captains and random dockside intercepts. My fellow Texas captains are likely familiar with the post-trip interviews that are part of the Marine Sport Harvest Monitoring Program. Regardless of how its collected, the information gathered from these samples are then put into mathematical formulas, which are used to estimate the total catch and effort for the whole fleet. As I've learned more over the years about the lengths to which NOAA goes to get these numbers as good as they can be, I've come to appreciate what this data can tell us.

But I've also experienced as I know many others have what I believe the shortcomings are. That's why I've been such a strong advocate for a move away from random sample surveys, and toward collecting logbook data from all for-hire operators. The thinking behind logbook reporting is that NOAA will get a much more complete, accurate and timely report of our catch and effort. And that should mean better data about what's actually being caught, and ultimately more sound management of the resource.

Doing our part
The pilot project Gulf charter boat operators are participating in is the first step in a process to see whether the promise of electronic logbook reporting holds true. Working together with fellow fishermen, state agencies, NOAA scientists and others, we'll be helping to answer a few key questions, like:
  • Can you really get better data from logbooks entered on a weekly basis than you do from telephone calls and dockside sampling?
  • Will the burden of reporting the cost to the government and the time we have to spend entering the information be worth the tradeoff?
  • What can we learn from this first, small-scale project that we can apply to other for-hire fisheries?

I personally think I know the answers to these questions, but I also recognize the need to really kick the tires on the new system to make sure it works as well as possible before making wholesale changes. And for that to happen, we charter boat operators have to do our part. We have to enter our data regularly, and we have to give feedback on how the process is working. We have to look at what the new numbers are showing us, and point out areas for improvement. We have to recognize that our oceans are changing, and that for our industry to survive we need to focus our energies on advocating for the best possible management practices based on real data, whether the numbers work to our advantage or disadvantage.

What we need from NOAA
For its part, the government also needs to make sure that the process stays as simple, efficient and focused as possible. From what I've seen so far, I'm hopeful that will be the case. Using the computer program that's been developed for entering our weekly catch and effort is about as easy as buying new tackle online.

The other reason that I'm hopeful is that this is not some lone project trying to address a single issue while leaving other problems to languish. Rather, it's part of the Marine Recreational Information Program, or MRIP, an initiative that has been underway since 2007 to overhaul the way NOAA collects and reports recreational fishing data.

And you can look no further than electronic logbook reporting to see this in action. This system came about thanks in large part to input and strong support from the for-hire industry, and we've been instrumental in getting this project off the ground.

Why now?
Even with the BP well capped, I know there are a lot of owners and captains out there who feel that the last thing we should spend time on right now are some pie-in-the-sky projects that we hope will one day lead to better management of a fishery whose immediate future seems so uncertain.

But by the same token, if we don't start now when we have the resources, expertise and commitments from across the board we won't ever get there. The recovery from this spill will be hampered by the same arguments we've had for years about the quality of the data we're using to set the rules. And we'll be in the same position we were in this summer the next time disaster strikes.

They always say you can't fight city hall. Well, it turns out you actually can. For sure, electronic logbook reporting is not going to solve all the problems or end all disagreements when it comes to fisheries management. But it's a start. And, as the people who got the ball rolling, it's up to us right now to keep up the momentum.