Implementation of the Gulf Reef Fish Survey Improves Recreational Fisheries Statistics

by Tiffanie Cross, Alisha Gray, Beverly Sauls  

man weighing fishFWC has long found it difficult to accurately define the recreational offshore fishery, both in terms of effort and total catch. Low numbers of recreational, offshore anglers are intercepted during dockside and telephone/mail interviews, making fisheries statistics for reef fish species, such as red snapper and gag grouper, challenging. The procurement of NFWF funds allowed the fisheries-dependent monitoring team to start a new program to meet current needs for more timely and accurate data from recreational anglers who fish for reef fish.

FWC’s new Gulf Reef Fish Survey is a data collection program implemented to greatly improve not only our ability to determine how many recreational fishing trips for reef fish are taken in the Gulf of Mexico, but also our estimates of the number and size of reef fish harvested and discarded by those anglers. Anglers who plan to harvest or possess Gulf reef fish, including anglers 65 or older, have been required since April 1, 2015 to check a box on their saltwater license indicating their intentions to fish for any of the following species: red snapper, vermilion snapper, black and red grouper, gag, gray triggerfish, banded rudderfish, almaco jack, lesser amberjack and greater amberjack. Signing up for this survey is at no cost to the angler.

This new requirement allows FWC to identify Gulf Reef Fish anglers and contact them directly for surveys rather than relying on random surveys of Florida residents and visitors. The mail survey is the first component of the data collection program and provides the data needed to estimate angler effort for reef fish species. Less than 10 percent of anglers signed up for the Gulf Reef Fish Survey are randomly selected monthly for the mail survey. They are asked to report how many trips they have taken in the past month and if any of the reef species included in the Gulf Reef Fish Survey were targeted.

Dockside interviews are the second component of the data collection program. These assignments are performed at locations where Gulf reef fish species are more likely to be targeted and can therefore supplement the limited data that is collected during NOAA Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) assignments. These interviews collect trip level data on how many people were fishing that day, whether they were targeting Gulf reef fish species, and the total number of harvests and discards made during the trip. These interviews provide the data to better estimate the numbers and size of fish harvested and discarded.

Since May of last year, roughly 5,000 dockside interviews have already been performed and nearly 55,000 mail surveys have been distributed. We are hopeful that these efforts will provide the better coverage of reef fish species we are striving for. For more detailed information about the Gulf Reef Fish Survey, visit