Managing U.S. Fisheries

Science-Based Fisheries Management—A Success Story

U.S. fisheries are big business, providing jobs and recreation and keeping our coastal communities vibrant. In fact, the United States is a global leader in responsibly managed fisheries and sustainable seafood.

From recreational and small-scale tribal fishermen to large-scale vessels harvesting and processing millions of tons of fish, U.S. fisheries are scientifically monitored, regionally managed, and legally enforced under 10 national standards of sustainability. Managing sustainable fisheries is a dynamic process that requires constant and routine attention to new scientific information that can guide management actions.

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 without depleting the resource. 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.


Effective fishery management starts with accurate scientific information about fish and fisheries. U.S. law requires that fishery managers use the best science available to make management decisions. To achieve this, fishery scientists:

  • Conduct stock assessments (a census of fish populations) using sampling technologies and modeling techniques to estimate how many fish are in the water.
  • Summary stock assessment information for stocks on FishWatch can be found at NOAA Fisheries' Stock SMART website.
  • Work with the regional fishery management councils, fishermen, universities, and other partners to look for ways to make these assessments as precise as possible.
  • Conduct research on fish biology and ecosystems—what fish eat, how they reproduce, how quickly they grow, their habitat, other marine species that share that habitat, and environmental conditions.
  • Collect historical information about the fishery, including economic and social factors.
  • Keep track of current harvests.

More about the science behind managing the nation’s fisheries.


The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act established an innovative regional public-private fisheries management framework by creating eight regional fishery management councils that work in conjunction with NOAA Fisheries. This council framework, which requires public transparency with broad stakeholder representation and participation, has become a model for fisheries management around the world. With their regional focus, the councils are able to tailor implementation to each region’s unique environmental needs and social and economic cultures.

Scientific information is provided to fishery managers and the councils, who use it to set the harvest and operational requirements for each fishery. These requirements, which are established in fishery management plans, support the goals of sustaining fish populations, protecting habitat and other species, and keeping fishermen on the job. To meet these requirements and ensure U.S. fisheries are sustainably managed, fishery managers can set:

  • Limits on the amount of fish allowed for harvest.
  • Limits on the number of fishermen who can participate in a fishery.
  • Requirements on where, when, and how fish can be caught.

These limits are based on scientifically determined levels that ensure fish are not being caught too quickly and that enough fish are left in the ocean to reproduce and keep the population and ecosystem healthy. These levels, known as the maximum sustainable yields, are the largest long-term average catch that can be taken from a stock under prevailing environmental and fishery conditions.

A fish stock subject to overfishing is one with a harvest rate higher than the rate that produces the stock’s maximum sustainable yield. An overfished stock is one with its biomass level depleted to a point that the stock’s capacity to produce its maximum sustainable yield is jeopardized. 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 can amend fishery management plans and put rebuilding plans in place to bring the rate of fishing and/or the population back to sustainable levels.


Enforcement of fishery regulations is important to ensuring sustainable management of U.S. fisheries. NOAA Fisheries Law Enforcement agents and officers use traditional enforcement techniques (patrols, investigations, satellite tracking systems, and education and outreach). They 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.
  • Help 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.

Taken together, these steps make up the U.S. science-based fisheries management process, which sustainably manages fisheries to keep the marine environment healthy, fish populations thriving, and our seafood industry on the job.