Our work is governed by more than 40 laws and policies, which are implemented by NOAA Fisheries and enforced by the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement. Learn more about the laws that drive our work.

Which laws drive our work?

NOAA Fisheries is the primary federal agency responsible for the stewardship of our living ocean resources and the marine habitats on which they rely. These living marine resources include fish; marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, and seals; and a wide variety of other species such as sea turtles, corals, sharks, as well as marine invertebrates and plants. Four major laws drive our work:

  • Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is the primary law governing the management of marine fisheries in U.S. federal waters.
  • Marine Mammal Protection Act protects all marine mammals and prohibits the "take" of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens on the high seas.
  • Endangered Species Act provides protection for species at risk of extinction and the habitats they depend on, as well as the means to coordinate public and private efforts to aid their recovery.
  • National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision-making processes by considering the environmental impacts of major proposed actions.

We implement these laws through regulations that outline the criteria and requirements to manage human use of, and control against negative impacts on, these ocean resources. Developing regulations is a lengthy, back-and- forth process of working with noted experts in the field, stakeholders at all levels, and the public at-large to develop proposals. These proposed regulations are made available to the public for further input and comment before they are finalized, put into place, and enforced by law.

What is the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act?

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) is the primary law governing the management of marine fisheries in U.S. federal waters. A fishery is considered one or more fish species managed as a unit. Under the MSA, U.S. fisheries management [link to fisheries management card stack] is a transparent and public process of science, management, innovation, and collaboration with the fishing industry.

The MSA works to:

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

Before the MSA, international waters began at just 12 miles from shore and were fished unregulated by foreign fleets. The law extended U.S. jurisdiction to 200 nautical miles and established the eight regional fishery management councils. These councils are responsible for the fisheries that require conservation and management in their region.

The councils represent the commercial and recreational fishing communities along with environmental, academic, and government interests and allow for public participation. They set fishing limits that prevent overfishing, allocate fishing quotas to different fishing groups, implement gear restrictions, and protect sensitive habitats.

How effective is the MSA at maintaining sustainable fisheries?

Under the MSA, we work with partners to end and prevent overfishing and rebuild stocks. By routinely monitoring fisheries and fish populations, our scientists ensure they are sustainably managed. Stock assessments are critical to this process. Using data gathered from commercial and recreational fishermen and our own on-the-water scientific observations, a stock assessment:

  • Describes the past and current status of a fish population.
  • Answers questions about the size of the stock.
  • Helps predict how a fishery will respond to management measures.

This information helps us determine the current status of a fish stock [link to stock status updates page], and the councils use this information to recommend annual catch limits and management measures for individual stocks.

If we find that 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.

We continue to adapt our science-based management process to account for a variety of factors—including ecosystem and climate conditions—to ensure the long-term sustainability of our fisheries and the communities that depend on them.

What is the Marine Mammal Protection Act?

The primary objectives of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) are to:

  • Prevent marine mammal species and stocks from diminishing to the point that they are no longer a significant functioning part of their ecosystems.
  • Restore diminished species and stocks to their optimum sustainable populations.

The U.S. Department of Commerce, through NOAA Fisheries, is charged with protecting whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea lions. Walrus, manatees, sea otters, and polar bears are protected by the U.S. Department of the Interior through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is responsible for regulating marine mammals in zoos and aquariums under the Animal Welfare Act.

The MMPA prohibits the taking and importation of marine mammals and marine mammal products, where “take” means to harass, feed, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal, or to attempt to do so. However, exceptions to that prohibition may be made for:

  • Pre-MMPA specimens taken before December 21, 1972.
  • International agreements entered into by the United States before December 21, 1972.
  • Alaska native subsistence harvesting. 
  • Scientific research, public display, enhancing the survival or recovery of a species, and incidental take in commercial fisheries.
  • Waivers granted by the U.S. government.

Why is the MMPA important?

The MMPA was enacted to address concerns that significant declines in some species of marine mammals were caused by human activities. Most of the problems in the current health of our environment are caused by people. However, people can also positively effect changes in our ecosystems and help species recover by learning about the issues and changing behavior.

The MMPA protects all marine mammals, and established a national policy to prevent marine mammal species and population stocks from declining to the point that they are no longer a significant functioning part of their ecosystems. Nowhere else in the world has a government made the conservation of healthy and stable ecosystems as important as the conservation of individual species.

What is the Endangered Species Act?

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) protects species that are at risk of extinction, and also provides for the conservation of the ecosystems on which they depend. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries share responsibility for implementing the ESA. Generally, U.S. FWS manages land and freshwater species, while NOAA Fisheries is responsible for marine and anadromous species.  

A species is considered endangered if it is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A species is considered threatened if it is likely to become endangered in the future. The listing of a species as endangered makes it illegal to "take" that species (i.e., harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, collect, or attempt to do these things). Similar prohibitions may be extended to threatened species.

Under the ESA, NOAA Fisheries works to conserve and recover marine resources by:

  • Listing species under the ESA and designating critical habitat.
  • Developing and implementing recovery plans for listed species.
  • Developing cooperative agreements with and providing grants to states for species conservation.
  • Consulting on any federal actions that may affect a listed species, to minimize the effects of the action.
  • Partnering with other nations to ensure that international trade does not threaten species.
  • Investigating violations of the ESA.
  • Cooperating with non-federal partners to develop conservation plans for the long-term conservation of species.
  • Authorizing research to learn more about protected species.

Why is the ESA important?

Each plant, animal, and their physical environment is part of a complex web of life. The extinction of a single species can affect many other species, especially humans, who depend on marine, estuarine, and riverine environments for food, commerce, medicine, and recreation. In addition to these practical benefits, the wide variety of species found in our oceans and coasts provide inspiration, beauty, and solace to many. The ESA helps focus conservation efforts and preserve the diversity of the planet in order to maintain this natural legacy for future generations.

Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed. It is a many-faceted treasure, of value to scholars, scientists, and nature lovers alike, and it forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans.

President Richard Nixon—statement upon signing the ESA, December 28, 1973

What is the National Environmental Policy Act and why is it important?

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of their proposed actions before making decisions. The range of actions covered by NEPA is broad and includes:

  • Making decisions on permit applications.
  • Adopting federal land management actions.
  • Constructing highways and other publicly owned facilities.

NEPA includes basic requirements for federal agencies to consider the effects of their actions on the environment, consider alternatives during the decision-making process, and provide opportunities for public involvement. Using the NEPA process, agencies evaluate the environmental and related social and economic effects of their proposed actions. This culminates in an Environmental Impact Statement, assessing the possible environmental impact of these federal actions.

Fishery management plans and regulations developed pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act must also comply with NEPA. NOAA Fisheries has issued a policy directive to clarify the roles and responsibilities of NOAA Fisheries and the regional fishery management councils (responsible for recommending fishery management plans and regulations under the MSA) in following NEPA.

What is the Lacey Act and why is it important?

The Lacey Act, passed in 1900 as the first federal law protecting wildlife, was originally created to protect game and wild birds by making it a federal crime to poach game in one state with the purpose of selling the animal in another state. Today, the Act reinforces other federal, state, and foreign wildlife protection laws by making it an offense to take, possess, transport, or sell wildlife that has been taken in violation of any law. The Act also prohibits the falsification of documents for most shipments of wildlife (a criminal penalty) and makes the failure to properly mark wildlife shipments an offense (a civil penalty).

The Lacey Act has been amended several times since its inception in 1900. Among other changes, amendments in 1969 expanded the act to include amphibians, reptiles, mollusks, and crustaceans. And in 1981, amendments expanded the scope of the Act in response to an increase in the illegal trade of fish and wildlife, both domestically and internationally.

The Lacey Act is considered one of the broadest and most comprehensive federal laws used by conservation enforcement personnel to protect wildlife.

How do we enforce these regulations?

Compliance is key to the effectiveness of conservation laws. Fishery management plans, laws, and international treaties are actively enforced by NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) and its state, federal, and territorial partners. OLE enforcement efforts include patrols and inspections; monitoring of vessel movements; outreach and compliance assistance to fishermen, dealers, and the fishing industry; and criminal and civil investigations.

To increase the efficiency of our enforcement efforts, OLE enters into Joint Enforcement Agreements, which deputize state and territorial marine law enforcement agencies to enforce federal laws and regulations.

Effective enforcement also relies on working with international government agencies and regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs) to ensure that the stewardship practices by which U.S. fishermen abide are used internationally. To accomplish this, NOAA Fisheries science, management, and law enforcement represent the United States in RFMOs around the globe and in the international police organization, INTERPOL.