managing fisheries

Fishery management involves regulating when, where, how, and how much fishermen can catch to ensure that they will be able to fish now and for generations to come.


Fish and shellfish are renewable resources - they can reproduce and replenish their populations naturally. Because of this, we can sustainably harvest fish within certain limits on a continuing basis without depleting the resource. Put simply, fishery management is the process of using science to determine these limits - some fish are caught while some are left to reproduce and replace the fish that are caught.


The fishery management process and the level of enforcement vary from country to country. Read on for a snapshot of the science-based fishery management system in place in the United States.

STep 1: The Science

Sorting the survey catch

Effective fishery management starts with accurate scientific information about fish and fisheries. In fact, one of the 10 national standards of the Magnuson Act requires that managers use the best science available to make management decisions. Around the country, fishery scientists periodically conduct stock assessments, a census of fish populations. Through various sampling technologies and modeling techniques, they estimate how many fish are in the water, which is a pretty complex job. It’s often said that “counting fish is like counting trees, except trees don't move and you can see them.” Working with the regional fishery management councils (councils), fishermen, universities, and other partners, fishery scientists are constantly looking for new ways to make this science more precise.

Scientists also research the biology of fish species - what they eat, how they reproduce, and how quickly they grow - as well as the ecosystems in which they live - their habitat, other marine species that share that habitat, and environmental conditions. They research historical information about the fishery, including economic and social factors, and keep track of current harvests through a variety of methods including deploying observers on commercial fishing and processing vessels to collect data on what and how much they catch. They do all of this in an effort to provide the best scientific advice to fishery managers so they can make sound decisions about the sustainable operation of fisheries.

STep 2: The Management

Setting a trawl

The Magnuson Act established an innovative regional public-private management framework by creating eight regional fishery management councils. The regional fishery management council framework requires public transparency with broad stakeholder representation and participation, including states and tribes. Reflective of each region’s unique environmental needs and social and economic cultures, the councils play a critical role in the success of national fisheries conservation law by tailoring implementation to each region’s unique needs. As such, the U.S. fishery management council framework has become a model for fisheries management around the world.   

The scientific information described above is provided to fishery managers and the councils who use it to set the harvest and operational requirements for each fishery. These requirements are laid out in fishery management plans. Fishery managers use a variety of tools to ensure our fisheries operate sustainably so that we’ll have fish now and in the future. They commonly place limits on the amount of fish that can be harvested, the amount of fishermen that can participate in a fishery, and where, when, and how fish can be caught. These limits are based on levels determined by scientists to ensure that fish are not being caught too quickly (called overfishing) and that enough fish are left in the ocean to reproduce and keep the population and ecosystem healthy. When too many fish are caught, we consider the population overfished. Scientists monitor fisheries and fish populations to make sure overfishing is not taking place and that populations are not overfished. If one or both of these things occur, managers amend the fishery management plans with new regulations to bring the rate of fishing and/or the population back to sustainable levels.

Managers may also put additional measures in place to address other issues such as a fishery’s potential impacts on habitat or other species, the safety of fishermen, and marketability of the catch. They might limit the type of fishing gear used, the location of the fishery, or the time of year the fishery can take place, or even implement innovative approaches like catch share programs. These measures support the goals of sustaining fish populations, protecting habitat and other species, and keeping fishermen working. Reaching these goals is not easy. Managers must make tough, sometimes unpopular decisions about fisheries as they attempt to balance the needs of the environment and the people that depend on the environment for a living.

STep 3: The Enforcement

NOAA enforcement officer

While scientists provide the research and managers set regulations, sustainably managing our nation’s fisheries would be impossible without someone to follow through on their hard work and enforce the rules. Fortunately, most commercial and recreational fishermen comply with fishery regulations - when fishermen follow the rules, everybody wins: the fish, the fishermen, and future generations. NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement is there to ensure fair competition and a level playing field for those who obey the rules. Our agents and officers work with 27 coastal states and partner with other agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard to prevent illegal activities such as fishing out of season, fishing in restricted areas, and exceeding catch limits. They use traditional enforcement techniques such as patrols and investigations as well as satellite tracking systems and education to get the job done. Their work helps protect fish stocks and other marine species, the livelihoods of people involved in the commercial and recreational fishing industries, and the health of seafood consumers.

Return to Step 1

Managing fisheries sustainably is a dynamic process. It requires constant and routine adjustment between what we learn from science and how we need to modify human behavior to adjust to changes in the ecosystem and fish populations.

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