Frequent Questions: Essential Fish Habitat in the Greater Atlantic Region
Fish and other marine species depend on their habitat to survive and reproduce. NOAA Fisheries works to identify and protect essential fish habitat.
In 1996, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens Act or MSA) was amended to enhance the conservation and management of federally managed fish species. These amendments included the requirement for federal fishery management plans to describe and identify essential fish habitat (EFH) for all federally managed species and the requirement for federal agencies to consult with NOAA Fisheries on any action or proposed action authorized, funded, or undertaken, or proposed that may adversely affect any essential fish habitat identified under this Act.
The questions below are to assist in understanding what EFH is, who is required to consult and how the consultation process works. Habitat and Ecosystem Services Division staff are also available to answer questions on EFH, the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, the species under our authority, and our coordination processes.
What is Essential Fish Habitat?
Fish, like all animals, depend on their habitat for survival and reproduction. In 1996, the Sustainable Fisheries Act amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Act defined Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) as “those waters and substrate necessary to fish for spawning, breeding, feeding, or growth to maturity.” Simply put, EFH encompasses the aquatic environment (including all physical, chemical, and biological properties therein) and its associated benthic (bottom) habitat(s)- which can include sediment, submerged aquatic vegetation, or shellfish beds. Habitat is deemed necessary if it is required to support any phase of a federally managed species’ life cycle. As these species are both commercially valuable and ecologically important, it is imperative to protect the habitats that sustain their healthy populations.
What is a Habitat Area of Particular Concern?
The EFH Final rule (50 CFR 600.815(a)(8)) states that any EFH judged to be important for the long-term productivity of populations of rare or vulnerable managed species shall be designated a Habitat Area of Particular Concern (HAPC).
These areas merit special consideration based on the following criteria:
1) importance of ecological function (current or historic)
2) sensitivity to human-induced degradation
3) stresses from development
4) rarity of the habitat. HAPCs are high-priority areas that may include (among others) seagrasses, coastal estuaries, and reefs.
In the Greater Atlantic Region, Habitat Areas of Particular Concern have been designated for several species including summer flounder, golden tilefish, Atlantic cod, Atlantic salmon, sandbar shark and sand tiger shark.
Who oversees the identification and protection of EFH?
The Office of Habitat Conservation, is responsible for protecting and restoring fish habitat in the United States. EFH is one of the key habitat protection initiatives, and is overseen at the regional level by the Habitat and Ecosystem Services Division.
In the Greater Atlantic Region, NOAA Fisheries partners with the New England Fishery Management Council and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (which were created under the Magnuson Fishery Conservation Act of 1976) to identify, define, and protect EFH using the best available scientific data.
A few species managed by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council including Spanish mackerel and king mackerel also have EFH designated in the Mid-Atlantic Bight portion of the Greater Atlantic Region.
NOAA Fisheries’ Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Program develops and implements Fishery Management Plans which includes the designation of EFH for highly migratory species such as Atlantic tunas, swordfish, sharks, and billfish. NOAA Fisheries manages these species because they are found throughout the Atlantic Ocean and must be managed both domestically and internationally.
How is EFH described?
In the Greater Atlantic Region, Essential Fish Habitat is designated and described by the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC), the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC), and NOAA Fisheries based on existing distribution data for each federally managed species. EFH is primarily identified with text descriptions - these are the legal definitions that are ultimately used to determine the limits of the EFH. Where sufficient information exists, maps are delineated based on the text; however, if there are discrepancies between the map and the text, the text will serve as the basis for determining the extent of EFH.
Text descriptions include the physical and biological environment of EFH for each species by life stage. Species profiles and habitat assessment reports found in fishery management plans inform the EFH text, including known habitat associations, reproductive traits, predator-prey relationships, and citations of species-specific literature.
EFH designations for the Greater Atlantic Region can be viewed on our EFH Mapper, which displays essential fish habitat, EFH areas protected from fishing, and Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (HAPCs).
What species in the Greater Atlantic have EFH identified?
Per the Magnuson-Stevens Act, EFH is only identified for those species managed under a federal Fishery Management Plan (FMP). EFH descriptions for the Greater Atlantic may be found via the following links:
What common Greater Atlantic species DO NOT have EFH identified?
The Greater Atlantic Region includes a wide variety of habitats, and is home to many fish species. However, because EFH is only designated for those that are federally managed by NOAA Fisheries or one of the federal fisheries management councils, many other commercially, recreationally, ecologically important species do not have any EFH designated for them. This does not mean they are any less important or that we do not seek to protect, conserve and enhance these species and their habitats. We may use other authorities such as the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, or the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to accomplish this instead of the MSA. A few examples of common Greater Atlantic species that do NOT have EFH identified are:
- American eel
- American shad
- Atlantic menhaden
- Blueback herring
- Blue crab
- Blue mussel
- Eastern oyster
- Hard clams or Quahog
- Horseshoe crab
- Soft clams
- Striped bass
How often is EFH information updated?
Per the MSA, EFH information is updated (at most) every 5 years. Currently, the Northeast Regional Marine Fish Habitat Assessment (NRHA) is underway, led by a committee including the MAFMC, NEFMC, NOAA, regional universities, and local nonprofits. The assessment, scheduled for completion in July 2022, encompasses four core actions:
- Abundance and trends in habitat types in the inshore area. This action will map the location and extent of habitat types utilized by the focus species and quantify the aerial coverage, status and trends of these habitats. It will also compile metrics that may inform an assessment of habitat quality.
- Habitat vulnerability. This action will involve Council and Commission staff coordination with, and participation in, the NOAA Habitat Climate Vulnerability Assessment (HCVA). That assessment will use habitat experts to examine fish habitat vulnerability to climate and non-climate stressors.
- Spatial descriptions of species habitat use in the offshore area. This action will use model-based and empirical approaches to identify, predict, and map habitat use for each of the focus species and track and quantify changes in habitat use over time (e.g. seasonal, annual, and future predicted use).
- Habitat data visualization and decision support tool. Habitat information will be incorporated into a publicly accessible decision support tool, making this information available to partners to visualize habitat location, extent, and use throughout the region, and provide access to relevant data and habitat metrics developed by the assessment.
Has EFH information changed?
Yes. EFH descriptions and maps have been reviewed and updated since their implementation by the regional management councils in order to reflect the ever-evolving available data.
Who are the EFH contacts in the Greater Atlantic?
Habitat and Ecosystem Services Division staff are located throughout the Greater Atlantic Region with offices in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. They are available to answer questions about EFH and other species and habitat within the Greater Atlantic Region.
What triggers an EFH Consultation?
An EFH Consultation is triggered when a federal agency, or its designee, determines that an action to be authorized, funded, or undertaken by the agency may adversely affect EFH. First and foremost, the action agency must provide notification of the proposed action. This is followed by submitting an EFH assessment to NOAA Fisheries.
What is the definition of an EFH 'adverse effect'?
Per 50 CFR 600.810, an adverse effect is any impact that reduces the quality and/or quantity of EFH. Adverse effects may include direct or indirect physical, chemical, or biological alterations of the waters or substrate and loss of, or injury to, benthic organisms, prey species and their habitat, and other ecosystem components, if such modifications reduce the quality and/or quantity of EFH. Adverse effects to EFH may result from actions occurring within EFH or outside of EFH and may include site-specific or habitat-wide impacts, including individual, cumulative, or synergistic consequences of actions.
What are a few examples of actions that affect EFH?
Common activities that may adversely affect EFH include port development, dredging (and disposal of dredged materials), development in coastal wetlands, coastal transportation projects (i.e. bridges and roadways), pollutant discharges, and offshore energy development projects. A discussion of non-fishing related activities and best management practices and conservation recommendations can be found in NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-NE-209, Impacts to Marine Fisheries Habitat from Non fishing Activities in the Northeastern United States.
When does EFH consultation begin?
EFH consultation begins when a federal agency contacts NOAA Fisheries and requests review of an EFH Assessment.
What do federal agencies need to do?
The Essential Fish Habitat Consultation Process is as follows:
- The implementing (action) agency provides notification of the action to NOAA Fisheries.
- The action agency submits an EFH assessment to NOAA Fisheries.
- NOAA Fisheries reviews the EFH assessment, and, if necessary, provides EFH conservation recommendations to the action agency within 30-60 days.
- The action agency responds to NOAA Fisheries within 30 days with information on how it will proceed with the action.
It is also recommended that the federal agency maintain a copy of the final decision for their own records.
Where does EFH consultation guidance exist?
The EFH regulations at 50 CFR 600 Subpart K establish procedures for interagency coordination and consultation regarding actions that may adversely affect EFH. The preamble provides background information and addresses many issues raised through public comment. Federal agencies and the public may also refer to the Consultations for Essential Fish Habitat, Essential Fish Habitat Consultations in the Greater Atlantic Region, EFH Consultation Guidance, and EFH Policy and Directives.
Are states required to consult on EFH?
No. State agencies are not required to consult with NOAA Fisheries on their activities. However, a state action that also requires a federal permit, license, or funding may require consultation between NOAA Fisheries and the federal action agency. In addition, NOAA Fisheries may use existing coordination procedures or establish new procedures to identify state actions that may adversely affect EFH, and to determine the most appropriate method for providing EFH Conservation Recommendations to state agencies.
Are private landowners required to consult for projects on their land?
No. However, should a private action require a federal permit, EFH consultation between the permitting agency and NOAA Fisheries is required if the action adversely affects EFH. For example, for projects in areas identified as EFH, consultation between NOAA Fisheries and the Army Corps of Engineers will take place using the Clean Water Act section 404 permit process.
Are there initial steps an action agency can take before contacting NOAA Fisheries?
Yes. Online information sources are available to assist federal agencies and the public. The EFH Mapper depicts the area of EFH for each life stage of fish managed under a Fishery Management Plan within the Greater Atlantic Region. The EFH Mapper also provides links to the EFH Text Descriptions in the Fishery Management Plans that describe EFH for each life stage of managed fish species. If these tools do not provide adequate information for you to identify EFH at a given location, please contact the Habitat and Ecosystem Services Division staff in your area.
What is an EFH Assessment?
An EFH Assessment is an objective review of the impact an action may have on fish and their habitat. The level of detail in an Assessment should match the level of complexity and magnitude of the potential adverse effects. An EFH Assessment includes:
- a description of the action
- an analysis of the potential adverse effects of the action on EFH and the managed species
- the agency’s conclusions regarding the effects of the action on EFH
- proposed mitigation, if applicable
Can EFH Assessments be combined with other federal consultations or environmental review processes?
Yes. NOAA Fisheries strongly encourages such efforts to streamline the consultation process. EFH consultation should be consolidated, where appropriate, with interagency consultation, coordination and environmental review procedures required by other statutes such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and Federal Power Act. EFH consultation requirements can be satisfied using existing review procedures if they provide NOAA Fisheries timely notification of actions that may adversely affect EFH and the notification meets the requirements of an EFH Assessment.
If EFH overlaps with ESA, are two individual consultations required?
In the Greater Atlantic Region, HESD staff work closely with our Protected Resources Division to develop joint consultations whenever possible. However, because there is limited overlap in species and our statutory timelines differ, EFH and ESA consultations often proceed separately. This does not mean that the two consultations are not linked. Often our EFH consultations include technical assistance information on threatened and endangered species provided by our Protected Resources Division and their ESA consultations and technical assistance letters often include information on EFH and other species and habitats of concern to HESD.
After a federal agency consults, how must NOAA Fisheries respond?
For the majority of EFH consultations, NOAA Fisheries will provide conservation recommendations to the action agency within 30 days of receipt of a complete EFH Assessment, or within existing agreed upon review procedures. Under certain circumstances when an expanded consultation is required EFH conservation recommendations are provided within 60 days. Expanded consultation procedures are used for federal actions that would result in substantial adverse effects to EFH.
What is required of the federal action agency once it receives EFH conservation recommendations from NOAA Fisheries?
Within 30 days after receiving a conservation recommendation from NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency is required to provide a detailed written response to NOAA Fisheries. This response must include a description of measures proposed for avoiding, mitigating, or offsetting the impact of the activity on EFH.
Are federal agencies required to accept NOAA Fisheries conservation recommendations?
No. EFH recommendations are advisory and non-binding to the federal action agency. However, in the case of a response from a federal agency that is inconsistent with the NOAA Fisheries recommendations, the federal agency must explain in writing its reasons for not following the recommendations. Additionally, if NOAA Fisheries find that the reasons are insufficient in comparison to the potential environmental damage, they can escalate the matter to a higher authority.
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