May 2015
From Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries

Fact vs. Fiction

 

It is amazing how fast misinformation travels and the hardships it creates.

I have, on numerous occasions, written about things that happen during my speaking engagements. One thing that is a bit depressing is how often I see misinformation completely overshadow the facts. Unfortunately, I deal with this on a daily basis. I have even added another slide to my presentation. I simply show a static picture of the Outdoor Alabama website and remind people that all rules and regulations can be found in one spot and not to rely on what their friends tell them.

The fact is rumors and half-truths circulated by misinformed people can destroy positive programs and years of hard work. This fact was made even more evident to me at the Conservation Advisory Board meeting February 28, 2015. During this meeting, Marine Resources Division Director Chris Blankenship and I provided PowerPoint presentations to the CAB, media representatives and the public on issues related to our respective divisions.

Blankenship focused his presentation on the results of the "Snapper Check" system, approved by the CAB last year and implemented during the state’s 2014 red snapper season. Snapper Check was a mandatory program that gathered fishing data from both private recreational and charter boat fishermen. These fishermen were required to report all snapper caught during the nine-day season.

 
Since the inception of the three buck limit in 2007, successful hunters are required to fill out their harvest record at the site of the kill.  Now, WFF staff are requesting hunters record their harvest into the game check system.  

Approximately 78 percent of the charter vessels and 46 percent of the private vessel trips reported their harvest through the Snapper Check system. Considering the MRD had less than a month to advertise and promote this system, they had tremendous participation and I applaud Blankenship and his staff for a job well done. The Snapper Check program was hailed as a tremendous success that assisted the MRD in gathering scientific data to more effectively manage the red snapper resource for the citizens of the state.

Game Check, on the other hand, yielded a less than 3 percent compliance rate during both the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 deer seasons. Game Check was called out as "big brother" watching over you and too much government overreach by its critics and, therefore, reduced to a voluntary program. How can virtually the same program be met with polar opposite opinions? Was compliance in Snapper Check higher because it was mandatory? Was it a completely different user group that was more educated on facts about the program? Was it because Snapper Check gathered evidence against the strict regulations of the Federal Government?

Let’s take a closer look at each program to see if we can determine if one is more overreaching than the other.

Why were the programs needed? The MRD believed the federal assessment of red snapper numbers was inaccurate. Consequently, they believed the MRD could more effectively manage the resource than NOAA. So, they needed to gather data to prove the resource could provide much more fishing opportunity to sportsmen. Snapper Check was the program to provide MRD with the data they needed.

The Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division needed data to more effectively set seasons and bag limits throughout the state. WFF was not comfortable basing recommendations to the CAB solely on a mail survey garnering response from approximately 3 percent of the licensed hunters in the state. This methodology did not take into account exempt hunters (those under 16, those over 65 and landowners hunting on their own property). Considering the fact that more than 35 states use a system similar to Game Check to manage their resources, WFF felt it could provide solid harvest numbers on which to base harvest regulations.

The two programs, Snapper Check and Game Check, seem to be very similar in their intended purposes.

Information required by each program: Snapper Check required each vessel that caught red snapper to report the number of anglers, fish harvested and dead discards, vessel registration, county of landing and type of trip (private or charter). The Game Check system for deer asks for a hunting license number, county of harvest, sex of the deer and type of property (private or public). The two programs do not seem very different on the information requested.

Ways to report data: A fisherman could report data into Snapper Check via a smartphone app, our website at www.outdooralabama.com, a toll-free telephone number and via paper reports that could be filled out at selected boat ramps. A deer hunter could report a harvest into Game Check via a smartphone app, our website at www.outdooralabama.com or a toll-free telephone number. I’m still not seeing a major difference between the two programs.

So, what is the difference in the two programs? Nothing, as far as I can tell, other than public perception. I can only speculate on why the perceptions were so different. Was the volume of misinformation circulating around the Game Check program what led to poor participation? While fishermen understood Snapper Check could give them more opportunity if they participated in the data-gathering process, hunters appeared to believe the data would take something from them. This is where the misinformation and rumors derailed the Game Check system. Hunters didn’t seem to realize it’s very possible that Game Check data could show WFF should provide more-liberal bag limits.

If MRD gains control of the red snapper fishery, will participation decline? Should WFF make Game Check mandatory? I wish I knew the answers. All I do know is WFF is not comfortable making management decisions based on analyzing less than 3 percent of the data. As a business owner, would you like to plan your future on less than 3 percent of information? I daresay a banker who makes business decisions by only knowing 3 percent of the money coming and going through the bank would not be in business very long.

Do you as hunters want to stake the future of hunting and wildlife management for future generations on 3 percent? I certainly don’t.

Chuck Sykes is director of the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.