Research Spotlight

The State Reef Fish Survey

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is pleased to announce an expansion of recreational fishing surveys to collect enhanced data for reef fishes. The new State Reef Fish Survey (SRFS) builds on proven success along the Gulf Coast of Florida. The Gulf Reef Fish Survey (GRFS) was implemented in 2015 to provide more timely and precise data needed to manage and assess important reef fish stocks, which has supported enhanced recreational fishing opportunities along the west coast of Florida. The expanded statewide survey replaced GRFS and started July 1, 2020, which means that anglers and spear fishers are now able to contribute to improving data for important fish stocks along the Keys and Atlantic Coast of Florida, as well as the Gulf. SRFS will use several methods to collect vital information on recreational fishing for reef fishes, including a mail survey, in-person interviews, and at-sea observations.

The SRFS mail survey collects information on the types of reef fish that are important to anglers and divers who fish recreationally in Florida and helps gauge how often people participate in these economically important activities throughout the state. Anyone with the State Reef Fish Angler designation may receive a questionnaire in the mail that asks about saltwater recreational fishing activities over the past month. A new set of participants will be randomly selected each month, which means that individuals are only asked to provide this information periodically. The new State Reef Fish Angler designation is required for anyone 16 years of age and older to legally harvest certain reef fish when fishing recreationally from a privately-operated boat in Florida. This requirement is in addition to applicable saltwater recreational fishing license requirements.

The previous Gulf Reef Fish Angler designation was required on the west coast of Florida to legally harvest: red snapper, vermilion snapper, gray triggerfish, gag, red grouper, black grouper, greater and lesser amberjacks, banded rudderfish, and almaco jack. Three additional species are included in the new statewide requirement: hogfish, mutton snapper, and yellowtail snapper. Anyone with a State Reef Fish Angler designation may harvest all 13 reef fish species anywhere in Florida, in accordance with all applicable size and bag limits, seasons, and gear requirements. Anglers and spear fishers with a valid Gulf Reef Fish Angler designation will have all the same privileges as the statewide designation and do not need to sign up again until it is time to renew. At the time of renewal, make sure to request the new State Reef Fish Angler designation.

In-person interviews will be conducted by FWC biologists at boat ramps and marinas throughout the state to collect detailed information on the numbers and types of reef fishes harvested during recreational fishing. Interviews will be conducted at sites where recreational boat parties that target reef fishes are more likely to return, and these data will supplement interviews also conducted over a larger number of sites as part of the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP). The FWC is a cooperative partner in this national survey, administered through NOAA Fisheries, that provides vital statistics for a wide variety of state- and federally-managed saltwater finfish in Florida. By supplementing the national survey, FWC biologists will intercept anglers and spear fishers that specifically target reef fish species more frequently. These types of trips are less common than those targeting popular near-shore species, such as seatrout, red drum, flounder, and snook. Using the dockside interview data in combination with the mail portion of SRFS, described above, will enable FWC to provide a more precise measure of the total numbers of reef fishes harvested and released during recreational fishing in Florida. On the Gulf Coast, this has led to longer recreational fishing seasons in state and federal waters for red snapper and greater flexibility for managers to re-open the fishery when a season is impacted by weather and other unforeseen factors. On the Atlantic Coast of Florida, FWC will continue enhanced survey efforts during federal harvest seasons for red snapper in addition to the new SRFS. The enhanced survey efforts are still needed to closely track red snapper landings in-season, and the new survey will provide more precise estimates for fish released year-round.

In addition to the mail survey and dockside interviews, anglers fishing recreationally from for-hire vessels may also be accompanied by an FWC biologist to observe reef fishes that are released at-sea. This information provides important insight into the overall health of fish stocks, how many fish will be available to harvest in future years, and how well fish survive following catch-and-release. Information provided through the mail survey, dockside interviews, and at-sea observations will also help fishery managers better understand the relative importance of artificial and natural reef habitats in Florida.

Recreational fishing is a valued past-time for Floridians and is an important driver for the economy of this state. Together, all of the data collected through the new State Reef Fish Survey will provide a clearer picture of the health of reef fish stocks throughout the state and help ensure the long-term sustainability of recreational fishing in Florida.