A Guide to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation & Management Act Requirements, Process, and Compliance

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) is a critical piece of legislation that plays a vital role in ensuring the long-term sustainability and economic viability of U.S. fisheries. This comprehensive guide provides an in-depth exploration of the MSA, offering essential insights into its key provisions, regulatory scope, and compliance requirements. Readers will gain a thorough understanding of the Act's history, its role in protecting essential fish habitats, and the strategies it employs to prevent overfishing and rebuild depleted stocks. The guide also delves into the practical aspects of compliance, including monitoring and reporting obligations, enforcement actions, and available assistance programs. By the end of this guide, readers will be well-equipped to navigate the complexities of the MSA and effectively manage projects in a manner that upholds the Act's conservation objectives while minimizing regulatory risks.


Key Details of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery 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: 2007
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 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation & Management Act?

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation & 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 been amended several times, most recently in 2007. The Act provides a national program for the conservation and management of U.S. fishery resources to prevent overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks, ensure conservation, and facilitate long-term protection of essential fish habitats.[^0]

The MSA is administered by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within the Department of Commerce. The Act establishes eight regional fishery management councils responsible for the fisheries in their region that require conservation and management. These councils develop and amend fishery management plans, which are implemented by NMFS.

The MSA's primary goals are to:

  1. Prevent overfishing
  2. Rebuild overfished stocks
  3. Increase long-term economic and social benefits
  4. Ensure a safe and sustainable supply of seafood[^2]

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

What does the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation & Management Act protect?

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation & Management Act protects marine fish stocks and their habitats within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) from overfishing and other detrimental impacts. The Act requires that fishery management plans be developed and implemented to rebuild overfished stocks, reduce bycatch, and minimize the impact of fishing on essential fish habitats.[^3] By managing fishing activities and protecting critical habitats, the MSA helps ensure the long-term sustainability of U.S. fisheries and the communities that depend on them.

[^0]: "Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act," NOAA Fisheries, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/topic/laws-policies#magnuson-stevens-act. [^2]: "Magnuson-Stevens Act," NOAA Fisheries, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/resource/document/magnuson-stevens-fishery-conservation-and-management-act. [^3]: "Essential Fish Habitat," NOAA Fisheries, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/habitat-conservation/essential-fish-habitat.


Regulated Activities, Entities & Prohibited Substances

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation & Management Act (MSA) is the primary law governing marine fisheries management in U.S. federal waters. The Act regulates commercial and recreational fishing activities, as well as the management and conservation of fishery resources. The main entities regulated under the MSA include commercial fishing vessels, recreational anglers, and regional fishery management councils responsible for developing and implementing fishery management plans.

Prohibited activities and substances under the Magnuson-Stevens Act include:

  1. Overfishing: Fishing at a rate that jeopardizes the capacity of a fishery to produce maximum sustainable yield on a continuing basis.1
  2. Bycatch: The unintentional capture of non-target species, which must be minimized to the extent practicable.2
  3. Habitat destruction: Fishing practices that cause irreversible or long-term adverse effects on essential fish habitats.3
  4. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing: Fishing activities that violate national laws or international obligations, lack proper reporting, or are conducted by vessels without nationality.4

These prohibitions aim to ensure the long-term sustainability of fishery resources, protect marine ecosystems, and maintain the socio-economic benefits derived from fishing activities.

Key Sections of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation & Management Act

Section 301 - National Standards for Fishery Conservation and Management

  • Purpose: Establishes ten national standards that guide the development and implementation of fishery management plans.
  • Key requirements: Fishery management plans must prevent overfishing, minimize bycatch, and ensure the long-term sustainability of fishery resources.5
  • Significance: Sets the foundation for sustainable fishery management practices and guides the decision-making process of regional fishery management councils.

Section 303 - Contents of Fishery Management Plans

  • Purpose: Outlines the required and discretionary contents of fishery management plans.
  • Key requirements: Plans must specify annual catch limits, accountability measures, and essential fish habitat designations.6
  • Significance: Ensures that fishery management plans are comprehensive, science-based, and adaptable to changing conditions.
  • Related processes: Developers and consultants should engage with regional fishery management councils to understand the specific requirements and implications of relevant fishery management plans.

Section 304 - Action by the Secretary

  • Purpose: Defines the roles and responsibilities of the Secretary of Commerce in reviewing, approving, and implementing fishery management plans.
  • Key requirements: The Secretary must review and approve plans within a specified timeframe, ensuring compliance with the MSA and other applicable laws.7
  • Significance: Establishes a clear process for the how & when of getting fishery management plans approved, promoting accountability and transparency.

Relationship to Other Regulations & Agencies

The Magnuson-Stevens Act interacts with several other federal, state, and local regulations and agencies:

  1. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA): Fishery management actions under the MSA are subject to NEPA review, requiring environmental impact assessments and public participation.8

  2. Endangered Species Act (ESA): The MSA requires that fishery management measures minimize impacts on threatened and endangered species listed under the ESA.9

  3. Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA): Fishery management plans must consider the impact of fishing activities on marine mammals and minimize incidental take.10

  4. Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA): State coastal management programs established under the CZMA must be consistent with the MSA and relevant fishery management plans.11

The primary agencies involved in implementing and enforcing the Magnuson-Stevens Act are:

  1. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS): A division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NMFS is responsible for the stewardship of the nation's ocean resources and their habitat, including the implementation of the MSA.12

  2. Regional Fishery Management Councils: Eight regional councils are tasked with developing and implementing fishery management plans for their respective regions, in collaboration with NMFS.13

  3. U.S. Coast Guard: Assists in enforcing the provisions of the MSA and related fishery management plans, particularly in combating illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.14

Effective coordination among these agencies and compliance with related regulations are essential for the successful implementation of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the sustainable management of U.S. fisheries.


Regulatory Standards & Limitations

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation & Management Act (MSA) establishes several standards and limitations to promote sustainable fisheries management in U.S. waters. These include:

  1. Annual Catch Limits (ACLs): The MSA requires regional fishery management councils to set ACLs for each managed fishery, which represent the maximum amount of fish that can be caught in a year while preventing overfishing.15

  2. Accountability Measures (AMs): Councils must also establish AMs to ensure that ACLs are not exceeded and to mitigate any overages that occur. AMs may include in-season closures, catch monitoring, and post-season adjustments.16

  3. Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) Protection: The MSA mandates the identification and protection of EFH, which are waters and substrates necessary for fish spawning, breeding, feeding, or growth to maturity. Federal agencies must consult with NOAA Fisheries on actions that may adversely affect EFH.17

  4. Bycatch Reduction: The MSA requires that fishery management plans minimize bycatch (the incidental catch of non-target species) and bycatch mortality to the extent practicable.18

These standards are implemented through fishery management plans developed by regional councils and approved by NOAA Fisheries. Enforcement is carried out through various means, including vessel monitoring systems, observer programs, and dockside inspections.19

Monitoring, Reporting & Recordkeeping Obligations

Under the MSA, regulated entities are subject to several monitoring, reporting, and recordkeeping requirements:

  1. Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS): Certain commercial fishing vessels may be required to install and maintain VMS units, which transmit real-time location and fishing activity data to NOAA Fisheries.20

  2. Observer Coverage: Vessels may be required to carry trained observers who collect data on catch, bycatch, and fishing practices. Observer coverage levels vary by fishery and are specified in management plans.21

  3. Logbooks: Vessel operators may be required to maintain detailed logbooks documenting their fishing activities, catch, and bycatch. Logbooks must be submitted to NOAA Fisheries at specified intervals.22

  4. Electronic Reporting: Some fisheries have transitioned to electronic reporting systems, which allow for more timely and accurate data collection and submission.

These obligations are essential for monitoring the health of fish stocks, assessing the effectiveness of management measures, and ensuring compliance with regulations. Data collected through these programs inform scientific research and future management decisions.23

Enforcement Actions & Penalties

NOAA Fisheries conducts inspections and audits to monitor compliance with the MSA. These may include:

  • Routine patrols and inspections at sea, in port, and at processing facilities
  • Targeted investigations based on suspected violations or high-risk activities
  • Complaint-driven investigations in response to reports from the public or industry24

During inspections, regulated entities are required to provide access to vessels, facilities, and records. Inspectors may examine catch, gear, logbooks, and other relevant documents.25

Violations of the MSA can result in various penalties, as outlined in the table below:

Violation TypeExamplePotential Penalties
Administrative- Failing to submit required reports- Exceeding catch limits- Using prohibited gear- Warning letters- Fines up to $25,000 per violation- Permit sanctions or revocations
Civil- Knowingly submitting false information- Fishing in closed areas- Interfering with enforcement activities- Fines up to $100,000 per violation- Forfeiture of catch, vessels, or other property- Injunctions and restraining orders
Criminal- Assaulting or impeding enforcement officers- Importing or exporting illegally harvested fish- Tampering with observer equipment- Fines up to $500,000 per violation- Imprisonment up to 5 years- Permit revocations and prohibitions on future fishing activities

Factors that influence the severity of penalties include the gravity of the violation, the culpability of the violator, any history of prior offenses, and the extent of any economic benefit gained through noncompliance.26

Compliance Assistance & Regulatory Incentives

Several programs and resources are available to help entities understand and comply with the MSA:

  1. Technical Assistance: NOAA Fisheries provides guidance documents, FAQs, and other resources to help interpret and apply MSA regulations. The agency also offers personalized assistance through its regional offices and port agents.27

  2. Training and Workshops: NOAA Fisheries, in collaboration with regional councils and industry groups, offers training sessions and workshops on topics such as catch reporting, bycatch reduction techniques, and EFH protection strategies.28

  3. Cooperative Research: The MSA encourages cooperative research projects that engage fishermen, scientists, and managers in jointly conducting studies to improve fisheries management. Participants may receive funding, data access, or other benefits.29

  4. Exempted Fishing Permits (EFPs): EFPs allow for fishing activities that would otherwise be prohibited under the MSA, for the purpose of research, gear testing, or other innovative projects. EFPs provide regulatory flexibility to test new approaches that could enhance sustainability or efficiency.30

Entities interested in these programs should contact their regional NOAA Fisheries office or visit the agency's website for more information on eligibility, application processes, and potential benefits.


### Regulatory History & Upcoming Changes

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) was first passed in 1976 to establish a federal fisheries management system in the United States. The Act has been amended several times since its initial passage, with the most significant changes occurring in 1996 and 2006.

The **Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996** (SFA) introduced several key provisions, including:

1. A requirement for fishery management plans to specify objective and measurable criteria for determining when a stock is overfished.
2. A requirement to rebuild overfished stocks within a specified timeframe.
3. The establishment of essential fish habitat (EFH) provisions to identify and protect important fish habitats.

The **Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006** (MSRA) further strengthened the MSA by:

1. Establishing annual catch limits (ACLs) and accountability measures (AMs) to prevent overfishing.
2. Enhancing the role of scientific advice in fishery management decisions.
3. Promoting market-based management strategies, such as limited access privilege programs (LAPPs) and catch shares.

These amendments were driven by growing concerns over the sustainability of U.S. fisheries and the need to balance conservation with economic considerations. The changes aimed to improve the effectiveness of fisheries management, rebuild overfished stocks, and ensure the long-term viability of the fishing industry.

As of 2023, there are ongoing discussions about the reauthorization of the MSA, which expired in 2013. Potential areas of focus for future amendments include:

1. Addressing climate change impacts on fisheries.
2. Improving data collection and management.
3. Enhancing stakeholder participation in the management process.
4. Strengthening the role of science in decision-making.

Regulated entities should stay informed about potential changes to the MSA by monitoring legislative developments, participating in public comment periods, and engaging with relevant agencies and industry groups.

### Additional Resources

1. **Full text of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act:** The official text of the MSA, including all amendments, can be found on the NOAA Fisheries website.

2. **NOAA Fisheries MSA Fact Sheet:** A concise overview of the key provisions and requirements of the MSA, prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries.

3. **Essential Fish Habitat Mapper:** An interactive online tool provided by NOAA Fisheries that allows users to explore and visualize essential fish habitat (EFH) designations for various and regions.

4. **Fishery Management Plans:** Access to the current fishery management plans for each of the eight regional fishery management councils, which are responsible for implementing the MSA in their respective regions.

5. **U.S. Congressional Research Service Report on the MSA:** A comprehensive report prepared by the Congressional Research Service that provides an in-depth analysis of the MSA, its history, and its implementation.

6. **National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Annual Report to Congress on the Status of U.S. Fisheries:** An annual report that provides an overview of the status of fish stocks, fishing activities, and the performance of fishery management plans under the MSA.


  1. 16 U.S.C. § 1851(a)(1) - https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/16/1851

  2. 16 U.S.C. § 1851(a)(9) - https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/16/1851

  3. 16 U.S.C. § 1853(a)(7) - https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/16/1853

  4. 16 U.S.C. § 1826j - https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/16/1826j

  5. 16 U.S.C. § 1851 - https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/16/1851

  6. 16 U.S.C. § 1853 - https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/16/1853

  7. 16 U.S.C. § 1854 - https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/16/1854

  8. 42 U.S.C. § 4321 et seq. - https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/chapter-55

  9. 16 U.S.C. § 1531 et seq. - https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/16/chapter-35

  10. 16 U.S.C. § 1361 et seq. - https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/16/chapter-31

  11. 16 U.S.C. § 1451 et seq. - https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/16/chapter-33

  12. 16 U.S.C. § 1852 - https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/16/1852

  13. 16 U.S.C. § 1852 - https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/16/1852

  14. U.S. Coast Guard - https://www.uscg.mil/Portals/0/documents/msaib.pdf

  15. 16 U.S.C. § 1853(a)(15)

  16. 50 C.F.R. § 600.310(g)

  17. 16 U.S.C. § 1855(b)

  18. 16 U.S.C. § 1851(a)(9)

  19. 50 C.F.R. § 600.1500 et seq.

  20. 50 C.F.R. § 600.1600 et seq.

  21. 50 C.F.R. § 648.7

  22. 16 U.S.C. § 1853(a)(8)

  23. 50 C.F.R. § 600.730

  24. 16 U.S.C. § 1858

  25. 16 U.S.C. § 1867

  26. 50 C.F.R. § 600.745

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A Note to Our Readers: We hope this guide is a valuable resource in helping you better understand the Magnuson-Stevens 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.