A Guide to the Fisheries Conservation & Management Act Requirements, Process, and Compliance

The Fisheries Conservation and Management Act (MSA) serves as the cornerstone of federal fisheries management in the United States, ensuring the long-term sustainability and economic viability of our nation's fisheries resources. This comprehensive guide provides a deep dive into the MSA, enabling readers to understand the Act's key provisions, regulatory scope, and compliance requirements. By exploring the MSA's legislative history, fishery management plans, and enforcement mechanisms, readers will gain a solid foundation in the Act's role in preventing overfishing, rebuilding depleted stocks, and protecting essential fish habitats. The guide also offers practical insights into navigating the fisheries management process, staying informed about regulatory changes, and accessing valuable resources for further learning. With a focus on the MSA's unique aspects and critical takeaways, this guide serves as an essential reference for anyone seeking to grasp the complexities of federal fisheries management and contribute to the responsible stewardship of our marine resources.


Key Details of the Fisheries Conservation & Management Act

Issuing Agency: National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within the Department of Commerce

Year Established: 1976

Last Amended: 2006 (Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act)

Statutory Authority: Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act

Primary Legal Reference: Title 50, Chapter VI of the Code of Federal Regulations

What is the Fisheries Conservation & Management Act?

The Fisheries Conservation & Management Act, also known as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), is the primary law governing marine fisheries management in U.S. federal waters. The MSA was first enacted in 1976 and has since been amended several times, most recently in 2006 through the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act.1

The MSA operates within the broader framework of U.S. environmental and natural resource management laws. It addresses the primary issues of overfishing, habitat conservation, and the sustainability of fisheries resources. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within the Department of Commerce, is responsible for the administration and enforcement of the MSA.

The MSA's approach to achieving its goals involves the establishment of eight Regional Fishery Management Councils that are responsible for developing and implementing Fishery Management Plans (FMPs) for fisheries within their respective regions. These FMPs must adhere to ten National Standards outlined in the MSA, which prioritize conservation, sustainability, and the prevention of overfishing.2

The MSA applies to all fishing activities within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends 200 nautical miles offshore, as well as to U.S. fishing vessels operating on the high seas.

What does the Fisheries Conservation & Management Act protect?

The Fisheries Conservation & Management Act protects marine fisheries resources within U.S. federal waters. The primary environmental resources safeguarded under the MSA are fish stocks, marine ecosystems, and essential fish habitats. The MSA protects these resources from overexploitation, unsustainable fishing practices, and habitat degradation by implementing science-based management measures, such as catch limits, gear restrictions, and area closures, through the Fishery Management Plans developed by the Regional Fishery Management Councils.3


Section 304 - Fishery Management Plans

Section 304 of the Fisheries Conservation & Management Act outlines the requirements and process for developing, reviewing, and implementing Fishery Management Plans (FMPs).4 The main purpose of this section is to ensure that FMPs are based on the best scientific information available and are designed to achieve optimum yield while preventing overfishing.5 Key requirements include the establishment of a fishery management council for each major fishery, the development of FMPs that specify conservation and management measures, and the review and approval of FMPs by the Secretary of Commerce.

For developers and environmental consultants involved in projects that may impact fisheries, understanding the FMP process and the conservation measures outlined in relevant FMPs is crucial for compliance. Strategies for addressing potential challenges include early consultation with fishery management councils and regulatory agencies, incorporating FMP requirements into project planning, and developing mitigation measures to minimize impacts on fisheries. Important processes associated with this section include the development of annual catch limits, the establishment of essential fish habitats, and the implementation of bycatch reduction measures.6


Regulatory Standards & Limitations

The Fisheries Conservation & Management Act, also known as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), establishes several standards and limitations to ensure sustainable fisheries management in U.S. waters. The MSA requires that fishery management plans (FMPs) developed by regional fishery management councils adhere to the following standards7:

  1. Annual Catch Limits (ACLs): FMPs must establish ACLs for each managed fishery, setting a limit on the total allowable catch to prevent overfishing8.

  2. Accountability Measures (AMs): FMPs must include AMs to ensure that ACLs are not exceeded and to mitigate any overages that may occur9.

  3. Rebuilding Plans: For overfished stocks, FMPs must include rebuilding plans that specify a time frame for rebuilding the stock to a level that supports maximum sustainable yield (MSY)10.

  4. Bycatch Reduction: FMPs must include measures to minimize bycatch and bycatch mortality, such as gear restrictions or time/area closures11.

  5. Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) Protection: FMPs must identify and protect EFH, which includes waters and substrates necessary for fish spawning, breeding, feeding, or growth to maturity12.

These standards are implemented through the FMPs developed by regional fishery management councils and approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). NMFS is responsible for enforcing these regulations through various means, including vessel monitoring systems, observer programs, and dockside inspections13.

Monitoring, Reporting & Recordkeeping Obligations

Under the MSA, regulated entities, such as commercial fishing vessels and seafood processors, are subject to various monitoring, reporting, and recordkeeping requirements. These obligations help ensure compliance with fishery management regulations and provide data for stock assessments and fisheries research. Key requirements include:

  1. Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS): Certain fishing vessels may be required to install and maintain a VMS, which transmits the vessel's location to NMFS for monitoring purposes14.

  2. Observer Coverage: Fishing vessels may be required to carry a certified observer on board to collect data on catch, bycatch, and fishing practices15.

  3. Logbooks: Fishing vessel operators must maintain accurate logbooks documenting their fishing activities, including catch, effort, and location data16.

  4. Landing Reports: Seafood processors and dealers must submit landing reports detailing the species, weight, and value of seafood purchased from fishing vessels17.

  5. Recordkeeping: Regulated entities must retain records related to their fishing activities for a specified period, typically three to five years, to facilitate enforcement and auditing18.

These monitoring, reporting, and recordkeeping requirements are essential for ensuring compliance with the MSA and providing the data needed for effective fisheries management and conservation.

Enforcement Actions & Penalties

To monitor compliance with the MSA, NMFS employs various inspection and audit procedures, including:

Inspection TypeFrequencyScope
RoutinePeriodicComprehensive review of fishing activities, records, and compliance with regulations
TargetedAs neededFocused on specific vessels, processors, or suspected violations
Complaint-drivenAs neededInitiated in response to complaints or tips from the public or industry

During inspections, regulated entities are required to provide access to their facilities, vessels, and records. They have the right to be present during the inspection and to receive a copy of the inspection report19.

Violations of the MSA can result in various penalties, depending on the nature and severity of the offense:

Penalty TypeExamples of ViolationsFactors Influencing Severity
Administrative- Minor reporting or recordkeeping errors- Failure to comply with gear restrictions- Cooperation with investigators- History of violations- Corrective actions taken
Civil- Fishing in closed areas- Exceeding catch limits- Falsifying reports or records- Gravity of the violation- Economic benefit derived from the violation- Ability to pay
Criminal- Knowingly submitting false information- Forcibly assaulting or impeding enforcement officers- Intent and knowledge- Prior criminal program- Endangered species or marine mammals impacted

Administrative penalties may include warning letters, permit sanctions, or small monetary fines. Civil penalties can range from $10,000 to $100,000 per violation, while criminal penalties may include fines up to $200,000 and imprisonment for up to ten years20.

Compliance Assistance & Regulatory Incentives

The NMFS and regional fishery management councils offer various programs and resources to help regulated entities understand and comply with the MSA:

  1. Technical Assistance: NMFS provides guidance documents, such as the "Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act: Guidance for Developing Fishery Management Plans," to help councils and stakeholders interpret and apply the MSA's requirements21.

  2. Training and Workshops: Regional fishery management councils host workshops and training sessions to educate fishermen, processors, and other stakeholders on compliance best practices and emerging management issues22.

  3. Fisheries Finance Program: NMFS offers loans to help finance the construction or reconstruction of fishing vessels, fisheries facilities, and aquaculture operations that adopt sustainable practices or technologies23.

  4. Exempted Fishing Permits (EFPs): EFPs allow limited fishing activities that would otherwise be prohibited under the MSA for the purpose of testing innovative fishing gear, strategies, or monitoring devices that may reduce bycatch or enhance sustainability24.

  5. Cooperative Research and Management: NMFS supports collaborative research projects between scientists and fishermen to improve the data and knowledge needed for effective fisheries management and conservation25.

Entities interested in these programs should contact their regional fishery management council or NMFS regional office for more information on eligibility criteria, application processes, and potential benefits.


Regulatory History & Upcoming Changes

The Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, more commonly known as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), was first enacted in 1976.[^300] The Act's primary purpose was to establish a federal fisheries management system to conserve and manage fishery resources within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).[^301]

Key amendments to the MSA include:

  1. The Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA) of 1996: This amendment focused on rebuilding overfished fisheries, protecting essential fish habitats, and reducing bycatch.[^302]
  2. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006: This amendment introduced annual catch limits and accountability measures to end overfishing, and promoted market-based management strategies.[^303]

The most recent reauthorization of the MSA expired in 2013, and Congress has been working on a new reauthorization bill. In July 2018, the House passed H.R. 200, the "Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act."[^304] This bill aimed to provide more flexibility in fisheries management and improve data collection. However, it has not been passed by the Senate as of March 2023.

Stakeholders should stay informed about potential changes to the MSA by:

  • Monitoring congressional activity related to fisheries management
  • Engaging with regional fishery management councils
  • Participating in public comment periods for proposed rules and regulations

Additional Resources

  1. Full text of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act
  2. NOAA Fisheries' MSA Fact Sheet - A concise overview of the MSA and its key provisions.
  3. Regional Fishery Management Council websites - Each regional council has its own website with information on fishery management plans, meetings, and public participation opportunities.

[^300]: Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, Pub. L. No. 94-265, 90 Stat. 331 (1976). [^301]: 16 U.S.C. § 1801(b)(1). [^302]: Sustainable Fisheries Act, Pub. L. No. 104-297, 110 Stat. 3559 (1996). [^303]: Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006, Pub. L. No. 109-479, 120 Stat. 3575 (2007). [^304]: Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, H.R. 200, 115th Cong. (2018).


  1. "Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act." NOAA Fisheries, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/resource/document/magnuson-stevens-fishery-conservation-and-management-act. Accessed 10 May 2023.

  2. "Laws & Policies: National Standards." NOAA Fisheries, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/laws-and-policies/national-standard-guidelines. Accessed 10 May 2023.

  3. "Sustainable Fisheries: Overview." NOAA Fisheries, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/topic/sustainable-fisheries#overview. Accessed 10 May 2023.

  4. 16 U.S.C. § 1854 (2021).

  5. 50 C.F.R. § 600.310 (2021).

  6. "Bycatch," NOAA Fisheries, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/topic/bycatch.

  7. 16 U.S.C. § 1851 - National standards for fishery conservation and management. https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/16/1851

  8. 50 C.F.R. § 600.310 - National Standard 1 - Optimum Yield. https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/50/600.310

  9. Ibid.

  10. 16 U.S.C. § 1854 - Action by Secretary. https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/16/1854

  11. 16 U.S.C. § 1853 - Contents of fishery management plans. https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/16/1853

  12. Ibid.

  13. NOAA Fisheries. (2021). Enforcement. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/topic/enforcement

  14. 50 C.F.R. § 600.746 - Vessel Monitoring System requirements. https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/50/600.746

  15. 50 C.F.R. § 600.745 - Scientific research activity, exempted fishing, and exempted educational activity. https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/50/600.745

  16. 50 C.F.R. § 648.7 - Recordkeeping and reporting requirements. https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/50/648.7

  17. Ibid.

  18. Ibid.

  19. NOAA Fisheries. (2021). Enforcement. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/topic/enforcement

  20. 16 U.S.C. § 1858 - Civil penalties and permit sanctions. https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/16/1858

  21. Removed due to invalid link.

  22. Removed due to invalid link.

  23. Removed due to invalid link.

  24. 50 C.F.R. § 600.745 - Scientific research activity, exempted fishing, and exempted educational activity. https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/50/600.745

  25. Removed due to invalid link.

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A Note to Our Readers: We hope this guide is a valuable resource in helping you better understand the Fisheries Conservation & Management Act. However, it's not a substitute for professional advice and doesn't cover every scenario. Always consult with regulatory bodies and professionals for the most current advice and project-specific guidance.