FWC Enlists Anglers to Assist Reef Fish Studies

Biologists use the data from the fish caught by recreational anglers to monitor the health and sustainability of reef fish populations in the Gulf of Mexico.

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Starting in 2015, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) will conduct new research on recreational fishing off Florida’s Gulf coast on a group of finfish species collectively termed reef fish. Reef fish include some of the most highly prized, economically important species in the Gulf region, such as red snapper and gag grouper. Monitoring the numbers of fish caught by recreational anglers is an important data need for assessing the health and sustainability of reef fish populations in the Gulf of Mexico. Florida boasts the most active recreational fishery of any state in the country. In 2014, Florida anglers took more than an estimated 3 million recreational fishing trips from pleasure boats in the Gulf of Mexico. Collecting data from this large and diverse fishery is no simple task, but it is a vital investment. The new, customized surveys implemented this year in Florida are designed to meet current needs for more timely and accurate data from recreational anglers who fish for reef fish. Other states, including Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas have also implemented new programs aimed at improving data for reef fish.

FWC researchers surveying fish 

The Gulf Reef Fish Survey is a new data collection program in Florida that is funded through the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund as part of the project titled, Enhanced Assessment for Recovery of Gulf of Mexico Fisheries. The project includes a series of complementary survey methods that monitor the number of anglers fishing for Gulf reef fish from private boats, the number of trips taken, and the number and size of reef fish harvested and released. This program will help monitor the health and status of Gulf Reef Fish populations through improved stock assessments.

At the center of this data collection program is a new regulation (as of April 1, 2015) that requires anglers fishing from a private boat off Florida’s Gulf coast (excluding Monroe County) to sign up for the Gulf Reef Fish Survey if they intend to harvest, attempt to harvest or possess one or more of the following reef fish species: red snapper, vermilion snapper, black and red grouper, gag, gray triggerfish, banded rudderfish, almaco jack, lesser amberjack, and greater amberjack. This new requirement is essential to improved data collection because it allows FWC to readily identify Gulf Reef Fish Anglers and contact them directly for surveys, rather than relying on random surveys of Florida residents and visitors.

Surveys are already in place to collect similar information from charter boats and headboats in Florida and have contributed valuable information for improved management and assessment of the recreational fishery. In addition, all commercial harvest is reported to state and federal resource management agencies either before fish are landed or during the point of sale.

Therefore, the new regulation to sign up for the Gulf Reef Fish Survey only applies to anglers fishing from private boats off Florida’s Gulf coast (excluding Monroe County). For more information on how to sign up for the survey, as well as recreational seasons, size limits and daily bag limits for reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico, visit the Saltwater Fishing Regulations section.

By focusing now on improved data collection from private boat anglers, we will achieve a more complete picture of the overall importance of recreational fishing for reef fish. Without reliable information on all fishing activities, managers are often forced to take conservative measures to ensure overfishing does not occur. Information collected from the Gulf Reef Fish Survey will help managers provide optimum recreational fishing opportunities in Florida.

The goal of this new research is to collect the best possible information used to manage recreational fisheries. The research has three main objectives:

1. Determine how many recreational fishing trips for reef fish are taken in the Gulf of Mexico.This will be accomplished through a voluntary survey of anglers who have signed up for the Gulf Reef Fish Survey. Anglers will not be asked to report every fishing trip they make, but may be selected periodically, contacted by email or mail and asked to fill out a questionnaire about fishing activity for the most recent month. Providing this data to FWC is voluntary, and we are asking for your help to provide the best data possible to manage this important resource. The questionnaire will only take a few minutes to fill out and postage to return the survey is free.

2. Improve estimates for the numbers and sizes of reef fish harvested and released.In addition to surveys already conducted around the state to monitor saltwater recreational fishing, FWC biologists will conduct interviews with Gulf Reef Fish Anglers as they return from fishing trips at public ramps, marinas and other landing sites to collect information about their recent trip. Biologists will also collect data from any harvested fish.

3. Give anglers who want to share more information ways to volunteer additional data.New tools will be developed for anglers who want to share information about their reef fish trips more frequently.

There are several ways you can help:

Return Gulf Reef Fish Survey questionnaires to FWC. The Gulf Reef Fish Survey can only be successful if questionnaires are filled out and returned to FWC. Even if you did not participate in recreational fishing, it is important to return the questionnaire if you receive one. For answers to frequently asked questions about the questionnaire, please visit the Gulf Reef Fish Survey FAQ's.

Participate in dockside interviews. If you are returning from a fishing trip and are approached by an FWC biologist, participate in the survey they are administering. It will only take a few minutes of your time to answer questions about your fishing habits, what you caught that day, and what you discarded. Also, if time permits, allow the researcher to collect samples from your harvested fish.

Fill out a red snapper catch card. Researchers need volunteers to record details of their next offshore recreational fishing trip, including tallies of red snapper harvested and released.

Visit this website for updates. We will be posting information in the coming year on more opportunities to provide information on how you can log your catch with FWC. Anglers may also call 888-FISH-FLORIDA (247-4356).

Thank you for your participation!


FWC Facts:
Smalltooth sawfish have been reliably measured at 18 feet, but they may grow to over 20 feet long.

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