The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is the primary law that governs fishery management in U.S. federal waters. The Act is designed to preserve fish stocks for sustainable management.

Background: The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (now known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act, or MSA), was first adopted in 1976 in order to establish and manage domestic fisheries with a focus on efficiency and economic growth. The MSA has since been amended several times, with the most significant changes being made in the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA).

The SFA functioned on the same management structure, but with an increased focus on sustainability. The SFA also adopted the 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. In 2006, the MSA was reauthorized to strengthen the changes made in the 1996 Act. Goals of the 2006 reauthorization were to increase accountability, strengthen the role of science, emphasize market-based management, coordinate with national environmental laws and increase international cooperation.

Operation: Under the MSA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) fishing authority, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), is able to regulate fish stocks to support the long-term health of the nation’s marine ecosystem. The MSA defines ten national standards for fishery conservation and management that work to sustain fishery resources, the ecosystems in which they live and the people that depend upon them.

A primary purpose of the MSA is the establishment of eight independent Regional Fishery Management Councils to help regulate and oversee fishery management in federal waters. The MSA explains the role of these regional councils and describes their functions and operating procedures. Each council is responsible for developing Fishery Management Plans (FMPs) to regulate commercial fishing within its geographic region.

All FMPs must comply with MSA’s ten national standards. For example, all FMPs must specify objective and measurable criteria for determining when a stock is overfished or when overfishing is occurring, and to establish measures for rebuilding the stock. FMPs must also establish a mechanism for specifying annual catch limits at a level that prevents overfishing.

The annual catch limits and accompanying accountability measures were officially put in place for all federally managed fisheries. Pursuant to the MSA, NOAA is required to provide an annual report to Congress on the status of U.S. fisheries. The 2019 Report on the Status of U.S. Fisheries reported that overfishing is at a record low, with 93% of fish stocks being fished at an appropriate rate. Since 2000, more than 47 at-risk fish populations have been restored.

The 10 national standards defined by the MSA are mandated to:

  1. Achieve optimum yield and prevent overfishing
  2. Use best available scientific information
  3. Manage individual stocks as a unit
  4. Allocations must be fair and equitable, promote conservation and prevent excessive shares
  5. Consider efficiency in utilization; not have economic allocation as sole purpose
  6. Allow for variations and contingencies
  7. Minimize costs, avoid duplication
  8. Consider fishing communities to provide for their sustained participation and to minimize adverse economic impacts
  9. Minimize bycatch and bycatch mortality
  10. Promote safety of human life at sea

Administration and Enforcement: The MSA is operated by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the Department of Commerce.

Statutory Authority: 16 U.S.C. 1801-1883.