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Laws & Policies

Magnuson-Stevens Act

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is the primary law governing marine fisheries management in U.S. federal waters. First passed in 1976, the MSA fosters long-term biological and economic sustainability of our nation’s marine fisheries. Key objectives of the MSA are to:

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

Under the MSA, U.S. fisheries management is a transparent and public process of science, management, innovation, and collaboration with the fishing industry. As a result, the United States is ending and preventing overfishing, actively rebuilding stocks, and providing fishing opportunities and economic benefits for both commercial and recreational fishermen, as well as fishing communities and shoreside businesses that support fishing and use fish products.

History of the MSA

Before the MSA, international waters began at just 12 miles from shore and were fished by unregulated foreign fleets. The 1976 law extended U.S. jurisdiction to 200 nautical miles and established eight regional fishery management councils with representation from the coastal states and fishery stakeholders. The councils’ develop fishery management plans that comply with the MSA’s conservation and management requirements, including 10 national standards—principles that promote sustainable fisheries management.

Congress has twice made significant revisions to the MSA, first in 1996 with the passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act and in 2007 with the MSA Reauthorization Act.

 

The Sustainable Fisheries Act:

  • Strengthened requirements to prevent overfishing and rebuild overfished fisheries.
  • Set standards for fishery management plans to specify objective and measureable criteria for determining stock status.
  • Added three new national standards to address fishing vessel safety, fishing communities, and bycatch.
  • Introduced fish habitat as a key component in fisheries management.

The 2007 MSA Reauthorization Act:

Under the MSA, we are ending overfishing and rebuilding stocks, which strengthens the value of fisheries to the economy, communities, and marine ecosystems.

Read more about ongoing MSA reauthorization activities

Endangered Species Act

Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, recognizing that the natural heritage of the United States was of “esthetic, ecological, educational, recreational, and scientific value to our nation and its people.” It was understood that, without protection, many of our nation’s native plants and animals would become extinct.

Under the ESA, the federal government has the responsibility to protect:

  • Endangered species—species that are in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of their range.

  • Threatened species—species that are likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.

  • Critical habitat—specific areas that are:

    • within the geographical area occupied by the species at the time of listing, if they contain physical or biological features essential to conservation, and those features may require special management considerations or protection

    • outside the geographical area occupied by the species if the agency determines that the area itself is essential for conservation.

NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service share responsibility for implementing the ESA. NOAA Fisheries is responsible for endangered and threatened marine and anadromous species—from whales and seals to sharks, salmon, and corals. The U.S. FWS is responsible for most terrestrial and freshwater species, but also has responsibility over several marine mammal species like walrus, sea otters, manatees, and polar bears. We share jurisdiction over several other species such as sea turtles and Atlantic salmon.
 

Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed.

     —President Nixon, upon signing the Endangered Species Act

 

We manage a number of endangered and threatened marine species . Under the ESA, species are listed as endangered or threatened regardless of where they are found.

If a species occurs only in areas beyond the U.S. exclusive economic zone and territorial waters, we refer to it as a “foreign species” in our counts of ESA-listed species (see the list of foreign species). 
 

Protection, Conservation, and Recovery of Listed Species

The listing of a species as endangered makes it illegal for any person under U.S. jurisdiction to "take" that species—meaning harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, collect, or attempt to do any of these things. It is also illegal to import, export, or transport and sell endangered species in interstate or foreign commerce. Similar prohibitions may extend to species listed as threatened under the ESA.

NOAA Fisheries also does the following management actions for species listed under the ESA:

The primary purpose of the ESA is to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend. To determine if an endangered or threatened species has recovered, we review the best available data about the species. We evaluate that data and progress towards meeting the species recovery criteria to determine whether the species still meets the definition of a threatened or endangered species.

Some factors that managers might consider when determining if a species is eligible for downlisting (e.g., from endangered to threatened) or delisting (e.g., removal from the list) are population increases, conservation efforts, regulatory mechanisms to conserve a species and its habitat, and reduction of threats. Once a species is determined to be recovered, it can then be removed from the list of endangered and threatened species.

Read the full text of the ESA

Learn more about the work we do under the ESA

Success Stories

The ESA has been successful in preventing species extinctions—less than 1 percent of the species listed under the ESA have gone extinct. While we have recovered and delisted a small percentage of listed species since 1973, we would likely have seen hundreds of species go extinct without the ESA. Learn about some of our success stories:

Regulations, Policies, and Guidance

We have issued regulations, national policies, and guidance to promote efficiency and consistency in implementing the ESA to conserve and recover listed marine species.

Find ESA regulations, policies, and guidance

Marine Mammal Protection Act

Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 in response to increasing concerns among scientists and the public that significant declines in some species of marine mammals were caused by human activities. The MMPA established a national policy to prevent marine mammal species and population stocks from declining beyond the point where they ceased to be significant functioning elements of the ecosystems of which they are a part. This was the first legislation to mandate an ecosystem-based approach to marine resource management.

Three federal entities share responsibility for implementing the MMPA:

  • NOAA Fisheries—responsible for the protection of whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea lions.

  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—responsible for the protection of walrus, manatees, sea otters, and polar bears.

  • Marine Mammal Commission—provides independent, science-based oversight of domestic and international policies and actions of federal agencies addressing human impacts on marine mammals and their ecosystems.

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a part of the Department of Agriculture, is responsible for regulations managing marine mammals at public display facilities (i.e., aquaria and zoos) under the Animal Welfare Act.

All marine mammals are protected under the MMPA. Some are also protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). 

 

Innovative Legislation

The MMPA was an innovative piece of legislation for the early 1970s. In addition to shifting the focus of conservation from species to ecosystems, the MMPA contains other features never before established in legislation. The MMPA:

  • Established a national policy to prevent marine mammal species and population stocks from declining beyond the point where they ceased to be significant functioning elements of the ecosystems of which they are a part.

  • Included protection for population stocks in addition to species and subspecies—a population stock is a group of marine mammals of the same species or smaller taxa in a common spatial arrangement that interbreed when mature.

  • Shifted the burden from resource managers to resource users to show that proposed taking of living marine resources would not adversely affect the resource or the ecosystem—”take” as defined in the MMPA means to harass, hunt, capture, or kill, or attempt to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal.

  • Established the concept of “optimum sustainable populations” to ensure healthy ecosystems. Prior to the MMPA, the management of marine species was aimed at producing a “maximum sustainable yield” to ensure the species replenished itself for an adequate harvest in subsequent years.

  • Directed federal agencies to seek changes in international agreements, such as the Convention for the Regulation of Whaling and the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention, so they corresponded to the protections outlined in the act.

Amendments of 1994

The MMPA was amended substantially in 1994 to provide:

Protection, Conservation, and Recovery of Marine Mammals

To protect all marine mammals, the MMPA prohibits the “taking” of any marine mammal species in U.S. waters where “take” means to hunt, harass, capture, or kill any marine mammal or attempting to do so. It also prohibits the import and export of marine mammals and their parts or products.

Exceptions to these prohibitions include:

In addition to managing the taking of marine mammals, NOAA Fisheries also performs the following conservation and management actions:

Learn more about the work we do under the MMPA


 

Co-Management with Alaska Native Organizations

Co-management involves collaboration between the federal government and Alaska Native Organizations to conserve marine mammal populations in Alaska.

Co-management efforts have integrated the field skills and traditional/indigenous knowledge of Alaska Native hunters with the scientific and technological expertise of agency scientists to enhance understanding of marine mammals including their stock structure, status, trends, movement and habitat-use patterns, responses to climate change, animal health and condition, contaminants, and disease. Sampling of Native-harvested animals for scientific purposes (e.g., biosampling) has provided tissues for a variety of studies. Education and outreach efforts have trained hunters in good hunting practices and biosampling and familiarized Alaska Native youth with cultural and subsistence traditions. Such efforts contribute significantly to marine mammal conservation and the maintenance of subsistence cultures.

Learn more about the co-management of marine mammals in Alaska 

 

Regulations, Policies, and Guidance

We have issued regulations, national policies, and guidance to promote efficiency and consistency in implementing the MMPA to conserve and recover marine mammal species.

Find MMPA policies and guidance

More Laws

National Environmental Policy Act

The National Environmental Policy Act, enacted in 1969, requires federal agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision-making processes by considering the environmental impacts of their major proposed actions. Its primary goal is to foster better decision making that takes into account all of the environmental impacts of an action and involves the public in that decision making.

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.

When NOAA Fisheries undertakes a federal action, the first thing we have to do is decide if the action is subject to NEPA environmental review. A federal action is an activity, such as a plan, project or program, which may be funded, regulated, conducted, or approved by a federal agency. If the action is subject to NEPA review, then we must document the environmental impacts at one of three levels of NEPA analysis:

  • By preparing a brief memorandum to the administrative record documenting that the activity qualifies for a categorical exclusion.

  • By preparing a concise environmental assessment, and if appropriate, a finding of no significant impact.

  • By preparing a detailed environmental impact statement.

We also provide information for use in NEPA documents prepared by other federal agencies. When another federal agency comes to us to obtain a permit or authorization, we review and provide comments on these documents. Once they are complete, we can adopt them as our own analysis for our permitting or authorization action. Through this process, we seek to ensure that impacts to marine wildlife resources are adequately described and that needed mitigation is provided.

We are responsible for implementing and enforcing more than 40 laws and policies to protect living marine resources. These include laws to deal with illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing; illegally trading fish and wildlife; and even the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, which designates and protects areas of the marine environment with special national significance.


More Information:

Lacey Act

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 (civil penalty).

The Lacey Act has been amended several times since its inception in 1900. The most significant amendments were those of 1969, 1981, and 1988. Among other changes, the 1969 amendments expanded the act to include amphibians, reptiles, mollusks, and crustaceans. As it relates to NOAA Fisheries, the 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. Additionally, new language was adapted, and the penalties for civil and criminal violations were increased.  

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

 

Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Enforcement Act

The Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Enforcement Act was passed in 2015 to combat IUU fishing and seafood fraud internationally. IUU fishing undermines both the economic and environmental sustainability of our nation’s fisheries. Combating IUU fishing and seafood fraud is critical to sustaining the resilience of our global ocean fisheries, to leveling the playing field for the U.S. fishing and seafood industries, and to protecting the United States’ reputation as a leader in sustainable seafood.

The legislation includes several provisions designed to prevent illegally harvested fish from entering the United States and supports efforts to achieve sustainable fisheries around the world, including the Port State Measures Agreement. This agreement aims to prevent vessels carrying fish caught illegally from entering U.S. ports and keeping illegal product out of our markets.

Together, the IUU Fishing Enforcement Act and the Port State Measures Agreement protect domestic fishermen from unfair competition and ensure consumer confidence in the seafood supply chain.

 
National Marine Sanctuaries Act

The primary objective of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act is to protect marine resources, such as coral reefs, sunken historical vessels, or unique habitats. The act authorizes the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to designate and protect areas of the marine environment with special national significance due to their conservation, recreational, ecological, historical, scientific, cultural, archeological, educational or esthetic qualities as national marine sanctuaries.

The National Marine Sanctuary System includes 13 national marine sanctuaries and five marine national monuments. NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement is responsible for the compliance with and enforcement of sanctuary regulations.

 

Northern Pacific Halibut Act

The Northern Pacific Halibut Act is the implementing legislation for the Convention between the United States and Canada for the Preservation of the Halibut Fishery of the Northern Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea. The act was created to conserve, manage, and rebuild the halibut stocks in the Convention Area to those levels that would achieve and maintain the maximum sustainable yield from the fishery.

It authorizes the U.S. Secretary of State, with the concurrence of the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, to accept or reject on behalf of the United States the halibut fishery regulations and management recommendations developed by the International Pacific Halibut Commission. The act also authorizes the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and the Pacific Fishery Management Council to develop, and the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to implement, additional halibut fishery regulations governing the U.S. portion of Convention waters.

 

Shark Conservation Act

The Shark Conservation Act allows for sustainably managed shark fisheries while eliminating the harmful practice of finning—a process of removing shark fins at sea and discarding the rest of the shark. The act requires that all sharks in the United States, with one exception, be brought to shore with their fins naturally attached.

Learn more about our role in the Shark Conservation Act


 

Billfish Conservation Act

In passing the Billfish Conservation Act, Congress recognized the conservation challenges facing billfish populations in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Section 4(a) of the act prohibits any person from offering billfish or billfish products for sale, selling them, or having custody, control, or possession of them for purposes of offering them for sale.

Learn more about our role in the Billfish Conservation Act


 

Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act

The Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act requires that all federal agencies consult with NOAA Fisheries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and state wildlife agencies when proposed actions might result in modification of a natural stream or body of water. Federal agencies must consider effects that these projects would have on fish and wildlife development and provide for improvement of these resources.

Under this act, we provide comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during review of projects under section 404 of the Clean Water Act (concerning the discharge of dredged materials into navigable waters) and section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 (obstructions in navigable waterways). Our comments aim to reduce environmental impacts to migratory, estuarine, and marine fisheries and their habitats.

 

Animal Welfare Act

The Animal Welfare Act ensures humane care and treatment for certain animals that are exhibited to the public, bred for commercial sale, used in medical research, or transported commercially. Marine mammals on public display at aquariums fall under this act.

Facilities using regulated animals for regulated purposes must provide their animals with adequate housing, sanitation, nutrition, water and veterinary care, and they must protect their animals from extreme weather and temperatures. U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal Care is the unit within the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service that upholds and enforces the act.

Learn more about the animal welfare


 

Coastal Zone Management Act

The Coastal Zone Management Act provides for the preservation, protection, development, restoration, and enhancement of our nation’s coastal zone resources for current and future generations. Under the act, there is a state-federal consistency provision that requires federal actions undertaken by federal agencies be consistent with enforceable policies of approved state management plans.

Learn more about the Coastal Zone Management Act


Fur Seal Act

The Fur Seal Act prohibits the taking of North Pacific fur seals, except by Alaska natives for subsistence purposes or by permit from NOAA Fisheries.

Policies

There are many NOAA and NOAA Fisheries policies that determine how we manage and study living marine resources. Policies are statements of and instructions for implementing high-level direction and positions that guide organizational decisions and actions. These written policies promote accountability and consistency in management and science practices and demonstrate our commitment to implementing identified priorities.

 

Aquaculture Policy

In the United States, marine aquaculture operates within one of the most comprehensive regulatory environments in the world. We play a central role in developing and implementing marine aquaculture policies and work to ensure that aquaculture complies with existing federal laws and regulations that we enforce under our marine stewardship mission.

Projects that are sited in U.S. waters must meet a suite of federal, state, and local regulations that ensure environmental protection, water quality, food safety, and protection of public health. Science and adaptive management inform NOAA policy, regulatory, and management decisions regarding aquaculture in marine waters.

We are working with federal, state, and tribal partners on a variety of initiatives stemming from the 2011 aquaculture policies, the recent National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan, and its mandates under the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the National Aquaculture Act. 

Learn more about the Aquaculture Policy

 

Ecosystem-Based Fishery Management Policy

Resilient, productive ocean fisheries are critical to our economy and way of life. Managing these fisheries over the long-term means taking into account more than just one species at a time. It requires a holistic, science-based approach that looks at the entire ecosystem. This approach is known as ecosystem-based fisheries management

NOAA Fisheries has developed an agency-wide EBFM policy, which outlines a set of principles to guide our actions and decisions over the long-term. It directs continued progress toward development and implementation of EBFM approaches. It also ensures our commitment to incorporate EBFM into the agency’s resource management decisions.

We developed a road map to guide implementation of the EBFM policy over the next five years. The road map outlines actions we can take now to further the policy’s six guiding principles:

  1. Implement ecosystem-level planning.

  2. Advance our understanding of ecosystem processes.

  3. Prioritize vulnerabilities and risks of ecosystems and their components.

  4. Explore and address trade-offs within an ecosystem.

  5. Incorporate ecosystem considerations into management advice.

  6. Maintain resilient ecosystems.

Learn more about the ecosystems-based fishery management
 

National Saltwater Recreational Fishing Policy

This national policy aims to better serve millions of our nation’s recreational saltwater fishermen and their coastal communities. The policy reflects fishermen’s voices on existing and emerging concerns, including public access, resource stewardship, regulatory education, science innovation, and better lines of communication between state and federal rulemakers and the community.

Learn more about the National Saltwater Recreational Fishing Policy

 

NOAA Habitat Policy

Healthy habitat is vital to protecting coastal and ocean ecosystems and communities. In turn, healthy habitat is important for achieving the NOAA mission. We are responsible for ensuring the nation has a strong network of healthy habitats. These habitats sustain resilient and thriving marine and coastal resources, communities, and economies. However, with widespread loss and deterioration of coastal and marine habitats, we are in danger of losing this natural infrastructure. We are committed to confronting these challenges for many years.

The NOAA National Habitat Policy acknowledges that healthy habitat is crucial to our agency programs and activities. This long-term policy outlines a set of guiding principles that applies to all of NOAA’s habitat work. It will influence future actions and priorities related to habitat conservation, allowing us to be more efficient and effective, and it’s a clear statement of our dedication to habitat conservation and resilient ecosystems and communities.

Learn more about the NOAA National Habitat Policy

 

Ocean Noise Policy

Increasing human activity is contributing to rising levels of underwater noise. Due to the efficiency with which sound travels underwater, aquatic animals have evolved to use acoustic cues in a wide variety of contexts that support their survival and reproductive success, including selecting mates, finding food, maintaining group structure and relationships, avoiding predators, and navigation. Increasing noise levels can impact the animals and ecosystems that inhabit these places including through acute, chronic, and cumulative effects.

The Ocean Noise Policy codifies our commitment to working to reduce the impacts of human-made noise on marine organisms, by outlining how we will implement the NOAA Ocean Noise Strategy—a document that outlines a ten year strategy that addresses scientific and management actions.

Learn more about the Ocean Noise Policy

 

Other NOAA Fisheries Policy Directives

NOAA Fisheries policy directives undergo an extensive internal review across NOAA Fisheries offices around the country and reflect our organization’s positions as a whole. They also provide specific instruction for how we implement key statutory requirements like the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Explore our policy directives