Fisheries Management in the United States

June 25, 2017

NOAA Fisheries is responsible for managing marine fisheries within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone. Learn more about the sustainable management of our marine fisheries.

What is a fishery?

The word “fishery” is used in many ways. It can refer to the occupation, industry, or season for catching fish. It can also refer to the area of ocean where fish are caught, or the business of catching the fish.

U.S. fisheries include:

  • Commercial – catching and marketing fish and shellfish for profit.
  • Recreational – fishing for sport or pleasure.
  • Subsistence – fishing for personal, family, and community consumption or sharing.

U.S. marine fisheries are the largest in the world, covering 4.4 million square miles of ocean.

Why do we manage U.S. fisheries?

Under U.S. law, NOAA Fisheries is responsible for managing marine fisheries within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, the 4.4-million-square-mile zone that extends from 3 to 200 nautical miles off the coast of the United States. Individual states are generally responsible for fishery management from their coastline out to three miles. We work with federal, regional, state, and territorial partners to ensure the sustainable management of U.S. fisheries in the EEZ.

We manage U.S. fisheries to:

  • Sustain, protect, and increase domestic seafood supply.
  • Maintain and enhance recreational and subsistence fishing opportunities.
  • Protect ecosystem health and sustainability.
  • Create jobs, support related economic and social benefits, and sustain community resilience.

To meet these goals, we need to make sure that fish populations stay above a certain level (not overfished) and keep harvest rates at a level that allows the fish to produce its maximum sustainable yield (no overfishing). Under our science-based fisheries management process, we’ve made great strides ending overfishing and rebuilding fish stocks. Overfishing and overfished numbers remain near record lows, and we've rebuilt 41 fish stocks since the year 2000.

Read more in the 2017 Status of Stocks Report

Who do we work with on fisheries management issues?

NOAA Fisheries works closely with eight regional fishery management councils, who are responsible for the fisheries in their region. Council members represent commercial and recreational fishing as well as environmental, academic, and government interests. The councils:

  • Develop fishery management plans.
  • Convene committees and advisory panels and conduct public meetings.
  • Develop research priorities.
  • Select fishery management options.
  • Set annual catch limits based on best available science.
  • Develop and implement rebuilding plans.

We also work closely with three Interstate Marine Fisheries Commissions (Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific States), who coordinate with NOAA Fisheries and states to collect data and manage fisheries resources in their shared coastal regions.

What U.S. laws relate to fisheries management?

U.S. fisheries management is guided by several laws, including the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and Endangered Species Act.

The MSA works to:

  • Prevent overfishing.
  • Rebuild overfished stocks.
  • Increase long-term economic and social benefits of fisheries.
  • Ensure a safe and sustainable seafood supply.

Fishery management plans must comply with a number of requirements, including 10 National Standards—principles that promote sustainable fisheries management. These National Standards address everything from preventing overfishing while achieving optimum yield in fisheries, to reducing bycatch, to ensuring safety at sea.

Under the MMPA, NOAA Fisheries is responsible for protecting whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea lions. It also establishes a system to govern interactions with marine mammals during commercial fishing.

The ESA protects species that are at risk of extinction and also provides for the conservation of the ecosystems on which they depend. Regional fishery management councils must take both the MMPA and the ESA into consideration when developing fishery management plans.

How do we manage fisheries?

Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, U.S. fisheries management is a transparent and robust process of science, management, innovation, and collaboration with the fishing industry. There are three pillars of fisheries management:

Science: our rigorous, peer-reviewed process provides fishery managers with the information necessary to manage the long-term sustainability of U.S. fisheries.

Management: the science-based process ensures continuous improvement of fishery management plans in response to new information.

Enforcement: by overseeing compliance with all applicable laws, we ensure accountability to the resource and the economies and communities that rely on it.

This system is designed to prevent overfishing, quickly stop overfishing when it occurs, and rebuild overfished stocks.

As part of this process, the regional fishery management councils work to provide fishing opportunities and create economic benefits in their region while also meeting conservation and management requirements. The councils develop management plans that prevent overfishing, allocate fishing quotas to different fishing groups, implement gear restrictions, and protect sensitive habitats. To ensure transparency and incorporate stakeholder feedback, proposed decisions are subject to review and comment by scientists, stakeholders, and the public.

How do we know whether U.S. fisheries are sustainably managed?

Scientists routinely monitor fisheries to ensure they are sustainably managed. Stock assessments are critical to this process. Using data gathered from commercial and recreational fishermen and other scientific observations, stock assessments:

  • Describe the past and current status of a fish population.
  • Answer questions about the size of the stock.
  • Help predict how a fishery will respond to management measures.

This information helps us determine the current status of a fish stock. Stock status determinations focus on the concept of maximum sustainable yield—the largest long-term average catch that can be taken from a fish stock under prevailing environmental and fishery conditions. Determinations include:

Overfishing: a stock with a harvest rate higher than the rate that produces the stock’s maximum sustainable yield.

Overfished: a stock with a population size that is too low, jeopardizing its ability to produce maximum sustainable yield.

Rebuilt: a previously overfished stock that increased in abundance to the target population size that supports its maximum sustainable yield.

The regional fishery management councils use these determinations to recommend management measures—such as annual catch limits. If a fish stock is overfished or subject to overfishing, fishery managers take quick action, putting rebuilding plans in place to bring the fishing rate down and restore the population.

Who makes sure that fishermen follow the rules?

Enforcement is a critical component of sustainably managed fisheries. NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement is responsible for making sure that that all fishermen in U.S. federal fisheries follow the rules. Special agents and enforcement officers ensure compliance with U.S. marine resource laws and take enforcement action when these laws are violated. From tackling seafood fraud in the United States to helping reduce illegal fishing internationally, these special agents and enforcement officers make sure there is a level playing field for honest fishermen. OLE protects marine resources and their habitat and helps safeguard the health of seafood consumers and the livelihoods of coastal communities.

Learn more about the enforcement of our nation’s marine resource laws

What role does the United States play in international fisheries?

Fish swim beyond geographical boundaries, so we must also work to promote science-based management practices in international fisheries. Through membership in international fisheries management organizations, we promote the same fisheries management and conservation practices we have here at home. These international efforts help level the playing field for U.S. fishermen who operate in some of the most sustainably managed and heavily regulated fisheries in the world.

One of the greatest challenges facing international fisheries is illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. IUU fishing poses threats not only to fisheries and ecosystems but also to our economy. The United States is closely involved in international efforts to combat IUU fishing. We have restricted port access for known IUU vessels and we’re working to strengthen enforcement.

What can I do?

Here are a few ways you can help support sustainable U.S. fisheries and the seafood industry: