Habitat is the foundation for the commercial and recreational saltwater fishing industries that provided more than 1.6 million full- and part-time jobs and over $200 billion dollars in economic activity in 2015. Essential fish habitat includes all types of aquatic habitat - wetlands, coral reefs, seagrasses, mangroves - where fish spawn, breed, feed, or grow to maturity.
In the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens Act), Congress defined essential fish habitat (EFH) as “...those waters and substrate necessary to fish for spawning, breeding, feeding, or growth to maturity.” In cooperation with the Gulf of Mexico, South Atlantic, and Caribbean Fishery Management Councils, essential fish habitat has been identified for hundreds of marine species managed in the southeast United States. Also, highly migratory species, such as tunas, billfish, and sharks, are managed by the NOAA Fisheries Highly Migratory Species (HMS) Branch and have EFH designations in these areas of the Southeast as well.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act requires federal agencies to consult with NOAA Fisheries when their activities, including permits and licenses they issue, may adversely affect EFH and respond to recommendations for protecting and conserving EFH. At its most basic, an EFH consultation consists of a federal agency providing NOAA Fisheries with an EFH Assessment, NOAA Fisheries responding with EFH Conservation Recommendations followed by the federal agency’s response to NOAA Fisheries' recommendations.
Generally a consultation begins when NOAA Fisheries receives the federal action agency’s EFH Assessment. An EFH Assessment is a critical review of the proposed project and its potential impacts to EFH. As outlined in the regulation, EFH Assessments must include:
- A description of the action;
- An analysis of the potential adverse effects of the action on EFH and the managed species;
- The federal agency’s conclusions regarding the effects of the action on EFH; and,
- Proposed mitigation, if applicable.
If appropriate, the assessment should also include the results of an on -site inspection, the views of recognized experts on the habitat or species affects, a literature review, an analysis of alternatives to the proposed action, and any other relevant information.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act requires NOAA Fisheries to recommend measures to conserve EFH when a federal action would adversely affect EFH. NOAA Fisheries may include comments and recommendations pursuant to other authorities including the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Power Act, and the Coral Reef Conservation Act at the same time; however, EFH conservation recommendations will be clearly identified.
EFH conservation recommendations are not prescriptive. Federal agencies must respond, in writing after receiving EFH conservation recommendations describing measures proposed by the agency for avoiding, reducing, or compensating the impact of the activity on EFH. If an agency’s decisions are not consistent with NOAA Fisheries’ EFH conservation recommendations, the agency must explain its reasons for not following the EFH conservation recommendations and include scientific rationale for any disagreements with NOAA Fisheries over the anticipated effects of the proposed action and the measures needed to offset those affects.
NOAA Fisheries welcomes the public and federal agencies to contact us at any time with questions regarding EFH and the EFH consultation process. Permit applicants are also encouraged to contact us for assistance and guidance before applying for permits. However, once a permit application is in process, applicants should follow the advice of the project manager at the federal regulatory agency who must evaluate a wide range of public interest review factors in addition to EFH.