Understanding Essential Fish Habitat
Essential fish habitat includes coral reefs, kelp forests, bays, wetlands, rivers, and even areas of the deep ocean that are necessary for fish reproduction, growth, feeding, and shelter. Marine fish could not survive without these vital, healthy habitats.
What is essential fish habitat?
Essential fish habitat, also known as EFH, is like real estate for fish. It includes all types of aquatic habitat and, in practice, specifies where a certain fish species lives and reproduces. Marine fish could not survive without these prime locations. Congress established the EFH mandate in 1996 to improve the nation’s main fisheries law—the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act—highlighting the importance of healthy habitat for commercial and recreational fisheries.
Essential fish habitat covers federally managed fish and invertebrates, but it does not apply to strictly freshwater species. Species not covered by EFH, such as lake trout, might be managed by a state or local authority.
Why is essential fish habitat protection necessary?
Both the recreational and commercial sectors of our economy and fishing industry benefit from stable fisheries and high-quality seafood. U.S. commercial and recreational fishing generated $208 billion in sales, contributed $97 billion to the gross domestic product, and supported 1.6 million full- and part-time jobs in 2015. Healthy habitats make this happen. They also provide countless opportunities for outdoor recreation and can protect our coasts and communities from storm impacts.
Where is essential fish habitat?
Think of places where baby fish hide, such as in seagrasses, mangrove roots, and rocky shorelines. Also, think about the rivers where adult salmon migrate to breed and the coral reefs where many species look for food. These areas provide the habitats that shelter and sustain marine fish. Depending on the fish species, EFH could include the deep sea, coral reefs, kelp forests, bays, wetlands, and rivers that connect to the ocean.
Essential fish habitat includes all types of aquatic habitat where fish spawn, breed, feed, or grow to maturity. You can search for the habitat of a specific species using our EFH Mapper tool.
Essential fish habitat does not apply to enclosed freshwater habitat, such as the Great Lakes.
How do essential fish habitat consultations work?
NOAA Fisheries collaborates with partners—especially regional fishery management councils—and uses the best available science to identify, describe, and map essential fish habitat for all federally managed fish. After defining EFH for a specific species, we can protect its habitat.
Protection takes two main forms:
- Limitations on fishing—the councils pinpoint sensitive habitats and may limit certain fishing gears in those areas.
- Consultations on development—all federal agencies whose work may affect fish habitats must consult with NOAA Fisheries.
EFH consultations guide federal partners, such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to minimize or avoid environmental impacts during construction and other development that may impact marine fisheries and vital habitats. They function like federal dietary recommendations: we guide people to make good choices with long-term benefits. Every year, habitat experts advise federal agencies on hundreds of projects, ranging from port expansions to offshore energy development, to ensure that they do not destroy essential fish habitat.
Read more about EFH authorities and guidelines under the Magnuson-Stevens Act in the act’s official wording on essential fish habitat.
Who decides what fish habitat is essential?
NOAA Fisheries is responsible for identifying and describing essential fish habitat for sharks, tuna, and other highly migratory species that cross regional boundaries.
For other managed fish species, regional fishery management councils determine what habitats and what locations meet the definition of EFH. Species by species, the councils develop and update in-depth fishery management plans that include EFH information and guide the application of EFH authorities.
Where can I learn more about essential fish habitat?
Using the best available science, we have identified and mapped prime locations for each life stage of nearly 1,000 species of federal concern. You can find this information in the fishery management plans developed by the regional fishery management councils and in our EFH Mapper tool.
You can also read more about EFH authorities and guidelines under the Magnuson-Stevens Act in the act’s official wording on essential fish habitat.