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NOAA Fisheries Establishes Recreational Fishing Survey and Data Standards

December 04, 2020

The standards will guide the design, improvement, and quality of information produced by recreational fishing surveys.

Recreational anglers fish off the coast of Florida. Image: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Today, NOAA Fisheries established a set of standards to guide the recreational fishing surveys administered and funded through the agency's Marine Recreational Information Program. The standards reflect federal guidelines and best practices for the dissemination of statistical information, and will further ensure the integrity of data collection efforts, the quality of recreational fisheries statistics, and the strength of science-based management decisions.

Most of the standards are already in use by the program and its partners, including the:

  • Adoption of quality assurance plans
  • Adherence to certification guidelines
  • Production of key statistics needed for the assessment and management of fish stocks

The transition to these standards is a key milestone in the Marine Recreational Information Program's recently released 2021 Implementation Plan.

“These standards set clear criteria for what NOAA Fisheries considers a sound recreational fishing survey management practice,” said Evan Howell, Director of NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Science and Technology. “By establishing these standards, we have removed ambiguities about whether a practice should be considered a recommendation or a requirement. That will support sound survey design and high-quality data.”

Why Develop Survey and Data Standards?

The standards were developed to promote data quality, consistency, and comparability across our national network of data collection programs. This will facilitate the shared use of the statistics these programs produce.

The standards cover seven key focus areas:

  • Survey concepts and justification
  • Survey protocols, sampling plans, and data collection and estimation designs
  • Data processing, editing, and quality control procedures
  • Reporting, review, and certification procedures
  • Transition planning
  • Process improvement planning
  • Access and information management

Two new standards mark a shift in the way the agency will publish its recreational fisheries statistics. One standard extends the reference period for the estimates we produce, while another establishes criteria for the statistical precision of published estimates. Together, the standards will help ensure our statistics provide a sound scientific basis for conservation and management decisions.

“The adoption of these standards is an important milestone for the agency,” said Richard Cody, chief of the Office of Science and Technology’s Fisheries Statistics Division. “The standards will help further ensure the integrity of data collection efforts, the quality of our recreational fisheries statistics, and the strength of science-based management decisions.”

Establishing a Precision Threshold

As part of the government’s guidelines for the responsible use of statistical information, the Office of Management and Budget requires federal agencies to establish their own criteria for statistical precision. NOAA Fisheries measures the precision of our recreational catch estimates through percent standard error, which indicates how confident we can be that an estimate reflects an actual population value. Once these standards are put in place, NOAA Fisheries will no longer publish estimates with PSEs higher than 50 percent.

In making sure our estimates meet a certain level of precision, this particular standard will allow the agency to:

  • Publish more reliable recreational fisheries statistics
  • Reduce the risks that are associated with the inappropriate interpretation of estimates that are imprecise
  • Direct resources toward improving statistical precision for data limited fisheries, or those fisheries whose catch estimates tend to be imprecise because they are not often encountered through our sample surveys

The precision threshold reflects best practices currently in place at the National Center for Health Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau, and other federal agencies. It also reflects guidance from state and federal stock assessment scientists and managers from New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Southeast, who participated in a workshop to explore the effects of increasingly imprecise estimates on stock assessment results. Workshop participants agreed that estimates with PSEs greater than 40 percent should only be used with caution. The Atlantic Coastal Cooperative Statistics Program continues to set a goal of achieving PSE values of 20 to 30 percent.

“While the precision threshold will affect our estimates, it will not affect public access to the data used to produce these estimates,” Cody said. “Stock assessment scientists, fisheries managers, and the public will continue to have access to all of the respondent data collected through our surveys, as well as the tools needed to analyze these data.”

Previously published data will be retroactively updated after these standards are put in place. Once these standards are fully implemented, wave-level estimates and imprecise estimates—defined as those with PSEs higher than 50 percent—will be removed from our published recreational fisheries statistics.

Publishing Cumulative Estimates

The implementation of these standards will impact the reference period of the estimates we produce. Instead of publishing estimates that are specific to each two-month sampling “wave,” the agency will publish cumulative estimates every two months. This will begin with the first survey administration of the survey year.

Wave-Level Estimates Cumulative Estimates Preliminary Data Available (Approx. Date)
Wave 1 January-February April 15
Wave 2 January-April June 15
Wave 3 January-June August 15
Wave 4 January-August October 15
Wave 5 January-October December 15
Wave 6 January-December February 15

“By increasing the reference periods of the estimates we produce, we can increase statistical precision,” said Cody. “The switch to cumulative, rather than wave-level, estimates will help catch statistics reach our precision threshold faster and give data users access to the information they need sooner. Cumulative estimates are also a more natural fit for most fisheries management plans.”

Next Steps

The Marine Recreational Information Program operates as a partnership among state, regional, and federal agencies and organizations. Staff from state and federal agencies, interstate marine fisheries commissions, and regional fishery management councils are the principal users of our data, and input from these partners was critical to the development of these standards. To support the transition to the standards, NOAA Fisheries will:

  • Publish a data user manual
  • Host a data user workshop
  • Preview anticipated changes to our statistical Query Tool

“While the standards will ultimately lead to changes in the way our recreational fisheries statistics are presented, NOAA Fisheries remains committed to providing high-quality catch estimates that meet stock assessment and management needs,” said Howell.