Coastwatch Spring 2009
Texting Your Catch: New Technology For Recreational Fishing Data

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COASTWATCH Spring 2009 Issue | Story by KATHLEEN ANGIONE

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Photo: Klaus Ritter

With today's wireless technology, the answer to a problem is most likely at your fingertips.

Just ask Scott Baker, fisheries specialist for North Carolina Sea Grant.

At nearly every fisheries management meeting he attends, Baker hears the same complaint: North Carolina's recreational fishermen don't have to account for their catch. Two years ago, during a regional meeting about snapper and grouper, Baker looked down at his hands and finally saw a possible answer: his mobile phone.

"I wondered if you could send a text message to a computer database somewhere instead of just texting from phone to phone," he says. "And if you could do that, maybe that was something recreational fishermen could do to track their catches and fishing effort."

Commercial fishermen and seafood dealers must submit extensive paperwork tracking what they bring in on a daily basis. But there is no such requirement in the recreational industry. Instead, the state relies on estimates from a survey conducted via phone calls and random site visits called the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP).

"The lack of required landing documentation in the recreational industry leaves some uncertainty about the true impacts on fisheries," says Tom Burgess, a commercial fisherman from Sneads Ferry. "We're not sure exactly how many fish are coming ashore."

While commercial fishermen point to lack of accountability in the recreational industry, anglers blame commercial gear for scooping up too many fish. But with hard numbers only coming in from the commercial side, it's difficult to assess the true effect each industry has on a particular fishery.

Finding a method for anglers to easily submit data themselves would augment existing survey techniques and help managers get a clearer picture about the health of important fisheries, Baker notes.

Tweet, Tweet!

Baker first shared his text messaging idea with friend Ian Oeschger, a software developer. A self-described "nerdy person," Oeschger was intrigued. He agreed to build a system to accept text messages from anglers and translate that information into data.

"When I think of an idea that seems juicy like that, I just can't help myself," Oeschger says.

With funding from a North Carolina Sea Grant minigrant, Baker and Oeschger designed a pilot project to test their idea. The pair asked six Wilmington-area charter boat captains to use pre-paid mobile phones to text their fishing reports to an online text messaging service called "Twitter" (www.twitter.com).

A free service, Twitter allows people to connect with each other through "micro-blogging," or posting messages that are no more than 140 characters. Once used primarily by teenagers and Blackberry addicts, "tweeting" is entering the mainstream — NASA even has a Twitter account posting status updates for high profile projects like the Mars I-Rover.

For Baker and Oeschger, Twitter provided an ideal online "collection bin" for the anglers' experimental texts. Oeschger then built a separate database to continually query Twitter for new updates and put data into useable form.

"Most of the work was figuring out, ‘What does the data need to do?' and ‘What is the most concise way for fishermen to communicate?'" Oeschger explains.

To answer these questions, he and Baker designed a compact syntax for fishermen to text in their reports, thereby minimizing reporting time and allowing for more content to be submitted in a single text message. For example, N2 E4 FA8R BL3 WEx20 translates to: Two anglers fished (N2), They fished for four hours (E4), They released eight false albacore (FA8R), they kept three Bluefish (BL3), and they kept one 20-inch weakfish (WEx20).

During an 18-week period, the charter captains submitted 128 trip reports describing 1957 finfish catches — 1123 were kept, 834 released. The captains describe the system as convenient, cost efficient and timely.

Guessing Game

The technology's potential for real-time data collection intrigues fisheries managers.

"It would save so much time, there would be much less bias and much less estimation," says Doug Mumford, head of recreational fishing surveys and statistics for the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF). "We're always looking for better ways to collect data, and this has a great deal of potential."

The size of a group dictates the methods regulators have to monitor catch, Mumford explains. With roughly 670,000 recreational anglers in North Carolina and nearly 800 for-hire vessels, the survey estimates generated by MRIP have been the most efficient way to gather information. In contrast, the state's commercial fishing industry has 606 registered dealers and 4,076 fishermen, a more manageable group that makes it easier to require daily trip reports.

Under the MRIP, 10 percent of the recreational for-hire fleet is called once per week and asked to track how many trips they take and where they fish. Twelve DMF employees across the state follow this up with dockside angler interviews to determine the mean catch per trip. Mumford estimates 20,000 interviews are conducted per year among recreational anglers, which includes people taking for-hire trips, fishing from their own boats, or fishing from the beach or a pier.

The rationale behind MRIP is that it's not worth the cost to sample everyone, but to instead sample enough anglers to see a trend for the whole, Baker says.

"There is more confidence in the commercial data because it is mandatory, not voluntary," he explains. "It's like doing your taxes — you don't estimate on your taxes."

But estimates for recreational fisheries are being used in management decisions, including openings and closings of certain fisheries, angering fishermen on both sides.

"There is room for improvement with the MRIP, and that's where this project with text messaging reporting fits in," Baker says.

Getting on Board

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Photo: Klaus Ritter

The project's charter boat captains agree.

"I think random surveys don't do us a whole lot of good, but real, hard data does," says Rick Bennett, owner of Rodman Charters in Wilmington. Bennett says he's in favor of better record keeping by the recreational industry because it would provide more accurate data for future fishery management plans. Stuart Caulder of Gold Leader Fishing Charters in Wrightsville Beach thinks such data could help evaluate the effectiveness of current fishery management plans.

"It's important to put this kind of thing in the hands of fishermen instead of politicians who've never been in a boat in their lives," adds Tommy Lorenzen of Blue Marlin Fishing Charters in Wilmington.

"It's the whole scenario of the scientists seeing one thing but the fishermen are seeing something else on the water," explains Jot Owens, an inshore and near-shore guide in Wrightsville Beach. "If you put those two things together and start working together then you have a better idea of what's going on."

Many of the captains involved with the study say they aren't opposed to mandatory reporting via text messaging or some other technology. However, privacy and user-friendliness are essential to getting the recreational industry on board, they note.

During the study, none of the captains were able to see data from other participants about their catches. If such controls weren't in place, ego might encourage false reports and inflated numbers, worries Lorenzen. But privacy, along with ease of use, will remain key components in future trials of the technology, Baker assures.

"Our biggest frustration in this business is things not being user-friendly," says Owens, noting that although they don't have to report catch, charter captains still must deal with myriad permits. Speed and efficiency would make mandatory reporting more palatable for everyone in the industry, he says.

Tournament Testing

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Photo: John Muuss

Although pleased with the study's initial success, Baker and Oeschger stress that collecting recreational data via SMS text messaging is an idea still in its infancy — a concept to be built upon.

The study took place in a very controlled environment, Baker says. It only focused on guide services in a particular area, and all the guides were given the same pre-paid mobile phone. Also, there was no way to validate the captains' reports.

In January, Baker received approximately $23,000 in funds from the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) and Wildlife Resources Commission to test the reporting concept in fishing tournament settings. His is one of 11 projects to receive funds generated from the $1.7 million in revenue from state coastal recreational fishing licenses.

This summer, Baker will set up shop at four king mackerel tournaments in Morehead City and Atlantic Beach. Tournaments may have a big impact on some fisheries, and two major regulating bodies — the South Atlantic Fisheries Council (SAFMC) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) — are lacking information on king mackerel tournament catches in particular, notes Mac Currin, chairman of the SAFMC and the state's MFC.

In the past, DMF assessed all catch and effort at tournaments using surveys and measuring boards, explains Randy Gregory, a DMF marine biologist who monitors several tournaments. DMF stopped using the practice for king mackerel competitions during the early 1990s because the data wasn't being used to calculate the fishery's stock assessments. A few years later, DMF discovered a "gaping hole" in data about the fishery, according to Gregory.

"We're excited to test the text-messaging method," he says. "It's information we've needed for a long time, and it will be exciting to see if it works."

Baker plans to have tournament participants use the same syntax to report their effort and catches as the charter captains used. But instead of using Twitter this time, a private company will provide the SMS service to collect messages. At the end of each day of competition, Baker will verify the reports alongside DMF biologists at the weigh stations.

Future Applications

Assuming the concept continues to prove successful, Currin sees possibilities for using it to increase reporting efficiency and accountability in commercial fisheries as well. Only a small percentage of commercial trip tickets are submitted electronically to the state, and no electronic reporting mechanism exists at the federal level.

One such use could be as a hailing and reporting system, says Burgess, the commercial fisherman from Sneads Ferry. A member of the SAFMC's snapper/grouper advisory panel and a black sea bass fisherman, Burgess says the fishery may face regulation for pot and soak time limits — each fishermen would be restricted to a certain number of pots and amount of time those pots can be left in the water.

Part of those regulations could involve on-board monitoring requirements. Pricey video or vessel monitoring systems are being discussed, but texting could be a simple, low-cost alternative. Under Burgess' current mobile phone plan, texting his catch to a database would only cost 30 cents per trip, he says.

Sending two text messages — one as fishermen hail out, or leave port, and one as they return — that detail the number of pots on board and their catch would prove they are fishing responsibly.

"It's a good accountability measure so we can get a real handle on what is coming out of the ocean and can manage the resource," he says, noting that texting would be a concise and painless system for fishermen on both sides of the fisheries debate.

In addition to more accurate data, the immediacy of text-message based reporting systems may help all fishermen feel a greater sense of ownership when it comes to management decisions, Baker points out. Extensive paperwork for commercial fishermen and third person reports from the recreational industry's MRIP can take several weeks or months to process. During that time, fisheries may be opened and closed based on old data, something that affects livelihoods on both sides.

"By having fishermen report data in a fast and efficient manner, you make them a greater part of the management process."

The text of stories that appear in Coastwatch may be reprinted with the following credit: Reprinted from Coastwatch, a publication of North Carolina Sea Grant. For a complimentary copy, call 919/515-9101 or send an e-mail to sandra_harris@ncsu.edu.

For reprint requests regarding photos in Coastwatch, contact Katie Mosher, 919/515-9069, or katie_mosher@ncsu.edu.