Pacific Groundfish:

Continued Efforts Needed to Improve Reliability of Stock Assessments

GAO-04-606: Published: Jun 4, 2004. Publicly Released: Jun 14, 2004.

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Because of concerns raised about the accuracy of National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) stock assessments, GAO reviewed the assessments for five species of Pacific groundfish: Pacific hake and four types of rockfish--bocaccio, canary, darkblotched, and yelloweye. Specifically, for these five species GAO (1) assessed the reliability of NMFS' stock assessments, (2) identified which relevant recommendations from NMFS' stock assessment improvement plan have been implemented and which have not, and (3) identified the costs associated with planned and ongoing improvements to groundfish stock assessments.

The reliability of the NMFS assessments is questionable for the five species GAO reviewed, although the assessments were based on the best information available at the time they were conducted. According to NMFS officials and a National Research Council report, to obtain reliable results each stock assessment should include at least one NMFS data source of sufficient scope and accuracy because such data are derived from unbiased, statistical designs. However, in the yelloweye assessment, no NMFS data were used, and in the darkblotched, canary, and bocaccio assessments, the NMFS data were limited because the NMFS' surveys were conducted in trawlable waters only. A 2003 NMFS report concluded that darkblotched groundfish are less abundant and bocaccio and canary are more abundant in untrawlable waters. Also for all five species, NMFS lacks a standard approach for ensuring the reliability of non-NMFS data used in stock assessments. Some assessors reviewed the quality of non-NMFS data; others did not. The assessors who reviewed the quality of the non-NMFS data found errors that made some of the data unusable or that could have impaired the reliability of certain stock assessments. Finally, for four species, the stock assessment reports were questionable because they did not present the uncertainty associated with the population estimates. For example, the canary stock assessment review panel recommended that standard estimates of uncertainty be included in the assessment report because without them it is difficult to determine their reliability. NMFS has taken steps to implement some of the recommendations contained in the NMFS stock assessment improvement plan, but much remains to be done. NMFS has concentrated its efforts mostly on improving data quantity. For example, NMFS increased the frequency of groundfish stock assessments and extended the geographic ranges of the shelf and slope surveys to cover over 300 more miles along the southern California coast. However, because of staffing and funding limitations, NMFS has not yet implemented many of the recommendations aimed at obtaining more types of data and improving data quality. For example, NMFS has not collected enough ecosystem data, and the frequency and range of recruitment surveys (estimated production of new members of a fish population) are limited. Finally, because of other program priorities, NMFS has not implemented the recommendation to create a comprehensive plan that combines the improvement plan and its complementary plans. NMFS records indicate at least $8.9 million is needed to complete ongoing and planned stock assessment improvements--$2.6 million that NMFS' Northwest Fisheries Science Center requested but did not receive in fiscal years 2001 to 2003, and $6.3 million requested for fiscal years 2004 and 2005. It will cost about (1) $7.7 million to improve the types of data used, such as more untrawlable water and recruitment surveys and (2) $1.2 million to improve the quality of data used in stock assessments, such as enhanced calibration of vessel equipment and standardized trawl survey procedures. The actual cost of the remaining improvements may be even higher than the $8.9 million estimated because the estimates primarily reflect the amount of money that agency officials believed could be realistically obtained, rather than what the improvements might cost.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In consultation with NMFS, the Pacific Fishery Management Council's Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) developed the "Groundfish Stock Assessment and Review Process for 2005-2006" to define expectations for uncertainty characterization and to provide guidance on how to depict the uncertainties of the stock assessments. According to NOAA, in April 2005, stock assessment authors began using a revised stock assessment model that can calculate the uncertainties. GAO believes that these changes will result in improved reliability of Pacific groundfish stock assessments.

    Recommendation: To improve the reliability of Pacific groundfish stock assessments, the Secretary of Commerce should require the Director of National Marine Fisheries Service to require that stock assessment reports clearly present the uncertainties in the assessments, such as the margin of error associated with species biomass estimates.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NOAA has taken actions to improve the quality of data used in stock assessments by establishing standardized approaches to evaluate data for reliability. For example, NOAA Fisheries has held workshops with stock assessment scientists to identify and prioritize data requirements. In addition, NOAA Fisheries Office of Science and Technology has initiated a search for existing data to help evaluate potential causes of bias in the current sampling and estimation procedures of several fishery surveys. Finally, NOAA has created the position of "data stewards" to standardize the processing and evaluation of data.

    Recommendation: To improve the reliability of Pacific groundfish stock assessments, the Secretary of Commerce should require the Director of National Marine Fisheries Service to establish a standard approach that requires that non-NMFS data used in stock assessments be evaluated for its reliability, and continue efforts to implement the task force's recommendations to improve data quality.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO found that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has taken action to collect more types of data, including (1) conducting annual juvenile groundfish surveys, (2) researching new techniques to determine the amount of untrawlable areas, (3) creating a working group for bottom trawl survey improvements, (4) conducting research on sounds made by fishes to aid in locating them and in studying their behaviors, (5) evaluating line-gear methods for surveying groundfish in a rocky habitat, and (6) developing and testing a new hook design for non-lethal collection of DNA samples.

    Recommendation: To improve the reliability of Pacific groundfish stock assessments, the Secretary of Commerce should require the Director of National Marine Fisheries Service to continue efforts to collect more types of data, such as data obtained from surveys in rocky, untrawlable waters, recruitment surveys, and ecosystem studies, for groundfish assessments where reliable data are now lacking.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2004, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began using the Program Planning, Budgeting and Execution System (PPBES) process. According to NOAA documentation, PPBES is an inclusive process that ties planning, programming, budgeting, and execution together. A NOAA official commented that using the PPBES process addresses GAO's recommendation because it integrates the NMFS stock assessment improvement plan with other NMFS plans, ensuring that the stock assessment improvement activities and budget requests are coordinated.

    Recommendation: To improve the reliability of Pacific groundfish stock assessments, the Secretary of Commerce should require the Director of National Marine Fisheries Service to develop a comprehensive plan that integrates the NMFS stock assessment improvement plan with other NMFS plans to ensure that stock assessment improvement actions and budget requests are coordinated.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

 

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