Fisheries Management 101

Posted on January 24, 2008 by Pat Murray, TIDE, CCA Vice President & Director of Conservation

(Editor’s Note: Fisheries management is a complicated arena, complete with its own language. The following article has run in various CCA publications through the years to review some of the terms and processes that impact your fisheries. It is an excellent introduction into how the game is played and can be a guide to help CCA members understand the confusing maze that is federal fisheries management.)

Not unlike a professional baseball season, the federal fisheries management process is long and, at times, arduous. In baseball, a single game can be seemingly insignificant until the playoffs, where it can all go wrong in a few short innings. In managing fish, the grinding management process can drag for years, yet turn on a dime when it comes to completion and implementation. In both cases, the victory comes from tenacity, understanding the process, and staying focused till the end. 
 
THE LOVE OF THE GAME
 
Fisheries managers, scientists and user-group representatives who make it all happen sit on esoteric panels, commissions and councils and speak in statistical acronyms that rival the best inside-baseball speak – MSY and SPR are viewed in relation to TAC by GMFMC, SAFMC and NMFS for the FMP.
 
Shrouded in mystery, the federal fisheries management process can seem unapproachable. This strange mix of science, politics and federal bureaucracy create an almost undrinkable brew. Yet, our management system controls almost every aspect regulating our federal fisheries. As CCA fisheries director Dick Brame mused - “Why do we care about the fisheries management process? Because it manages the fish.”
 
And what could be a more worthy pursuit than that?
 
As stakeholders in the resource, conservationists are in a new era of fisheries management where fishermen are assuming a greater role in the stewardship of our resources. All parties will not always agree with the output of the system; but without knowledge of how the system works, it is impossible to enact change. Through a general understanding of the flow of information, the decision-making process and a look at some management terms, a concerned angler can begin to understand our management system.     
 
THE RACE FOR THE PENNANT
 
The quest for victory in federal fisheries management begins and ends with National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). NMFS is an agency of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is part of the United States Department of Commerce. While state fisheries managers control state waters, for the most part, NMFS has the responsibility of the seaward side of state waters out to 200 nautical miles. Remember that state waters extend out to three or nine nautical miles, depending on the state.
 
In 1976, the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act created eight regional management councils to advise NMFS. The councils are made up of a variety of interests that include state fisheries managers, recreational and commercial representatives, and NMFS regional directors. This system de-centralizes the management of these geographically different regions and produces management plans that attempt to properly address the needs and requirements of conservation for a diverse set of fisheries. Through eventual approval by the Secretary of Commerce, management measures and subsequent governing regulations become federal law. As you might imagine, this process can last longer than a 162-game season.
 
Each council has a Scientific and Statistical Committee for insight into the technical aspects of fishery biology and statistical analysis. Equally, there are Advisory Panels (AP) for integrating commercial, recreational, environmental and special interest input into a fishery plan.
 
The council system creates a melting pot of scientists, politicians, fisheries managers, “fish-head” vagabonds and just plain concerned anglers. It is where local, state, national and even international opinions and attitudes mesh. Absent the tie-dyes, a contentious council meeting with a sporty public testimony can take on the look and feel of a Grateful Dead roadshow.
 
Although NMFS and the council system generally govern all federal fisheries, the United States Congress can pass legislation that directly regulates fisheries. Through amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, Congress controls the governing legislation. 
 
THE OTHER LEAGUE
 
Beyond the high-profile and high-power regional councils, there are three regional interstate fishery commissions – Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission (GSMFC) and Pacific Marine Fisheries Commission (PMFC). Outside of the ASMFC, the commissions have little regulatory power. In particular, the Gulf states regulate their fisheries without much interplay with GSMFC.
 
 In contrast, ASMFC was given authority in 1980 to manage striped bass and were so successful Congress passed the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Conservation and Management Act in 1996 manage all Atlantic coast fish stocks that moved between states. They review and adopt fishery management plans (FMP) and report to the Secretary of Commerce. Much like the regulatory power of the regional councils, this authority gives ASMFC substantial power and influence over the direction of fisheries management along the Eastern Seaboard. 
 
SETTING THE BATTING ORDER
 
Almost every managed fish species has an FMP. These extensive documents can rival the thickness of a drugstore novel but are analogous in content to reading a college textbook. Loaded with information on the biology of species and details of the total fishery, these plans attempt to map out the realities, problems and, hopefully, solutions for a fishery.
 
The appropriate regional council is required to continue to monitor and evaluate every fishery with an FMP. Through the amendment process, existing FMPs can be adjusted and contoured to the changing nature of a recovering fishery. These plans can literally guide the future of our fisheries. 
 
LEARNING THE LINGO
 
 It has been said that the only thing more difficult than understanding the patterns of fish is understanding the systems that govern their management. The web of acronyms and scientific jargon is enough to chase away even the most tenacious. But the final part of understanding the game is found in the definitions of this strange language of fisheries management. As we all know, to play the game, you have to speak the language.
 
Advisory Panel (AP) - Implicit to the name, an AP advises a given council, commission, or agency and reviews information on an issue. A panel is appointed by a management agency and is usually composed of a diverse group of experts in a given fishery.
 
Allocation – The share or part of a fishery that is distributed to a user group. This presents a defined limit of opportunity to harvest based on a variety of biological, environmental, and social conditions.
 
Anadromous – Fish that travel from saltwater to fresh to spawn.
 
Mortality – The number of fish dying due to fishing pressure (F) or natural causes (M). Total mortality (Z) is the sum of F and M. Mortality is usually expressed as a rate rather than in actual numbers or pounds, since the rate a species is dying off is better calculated than the actual number.
 
Aquaculture – Raising finfish and/or shellfish in a partially or completely controlled environment for sale in the commercial market. In the case of hatchery aquaculture, the fish are released into the ecosystem.
 
Bag Limit – The number of any species that may be retained per day. This can differ from a possession limit.
 
Biomass – The estimated total weight of a stock or species, usually used as a measure of the health of a stock.
 
Bycatch Reduction Device (BRD) – A device used to reduce the incidental harvest of species that are not targeted with the fishing gear being used, usually used in trawls.
 
Commercial Fishery – Any fishery that harvests marine life with the intent to sell.
 
Common Property Resource – Indicates a publicly owned resource.
 
Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) – Coordinates federal environmental efforts and works closely with agencies and other White House offices in the development of environmental policies and initiatives. 
 
Directed Fishery – Fishing that is focused on a species or combination of species in both commercial and recreational fishing user groups.
 
Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) – A report on the predicted environmental impacts of a proposed management plan.
 
Escapement – The term used to describe immature fish surviving to spawning age, often used as a measure of fishing mortality.
 
Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – All waters from the seaward boundary of coastal states to 200 nautical miles. State waters extend out to three or nine nautical miles.
 
Fecundity – A term used to describe the egg production ability of a fish stock or species.
 
Fishery – All directed fishing activities on a given species or species complex.
 
Fishery Dependent Data – Data collected on a given fish or entire fishery based on recreational and commercial take.
 
Fishery Independent Data – Data collected on a given fish or entire fishery based on data collected by the scientific community rather than by user groups.
 
Fishery Management Plan (FMP) – A highly scrutinized and detailed management plan for a fishery. It includes extensive data and analysis from both scientific and user group input. A FMP equally includes necessary management measures for the longevity and total health of the fishery.
 
Groundfish – A species or group of fish that lives the majority of its life on or near the bottom of the sea.
 
Individual Transferable Quota (ITQ) – A share or portion of a fishery that is assigned to a particular fisherman and/or vessel.
 
Limited Entry – A program on a state or federal level that restricts new participants from entering a fishery. This is usually accomplished by license limitation.
 
Marine Managed Areas – Managing for multiple objectives, where protection is not the only, and may not even be the prime objective.
 
Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) – An area of the marine environment that has been reserved to provide lasting protection for part or all the natural and cultural resources therein.  Numerous laws provide various levels and forms of aquatic resource protection and impact marine protected area designation. These laws include the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, and the Coastal Zone Management Act.  These laws produce varying degrees of restrictions on the marine environment within these designations.
 
Marine Recreational Fishery Statistics Survey (MRFSS) – An annual survey of recreational anglers that attempts to determine catch and effort data. NMFS conducts this study to build a database for use in discerning allocations, quotas, and FMPs.
 
Marine Reserve – Where uses that remove resources are generally prohibited.
 
Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) – The maximum number of fish you can remove from a fish population that will provide the highest yield (in pounds) and still have enough spawning stock to sustain itself.
 
National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) – A federal agency of NOAA with a primary function of the management of marine fish in the EEZ.
 
Optimum Yield (OY) – Less than MSY, the best possible harvest level for a given species based on the total benefits found in social, economic, and biological concerns.
 
Overfishing – When fishing mortality exceeds recruitment, overfishing is occurring.
 
Pelagic – A term usually used to describe species inhabiting the open ocean beyond the continental shelf.
 
Possession Limit – The number of fish that may be legally in possession at any one time.
 
Quota – The maximum number or poundage of finfish or shellfish that can be landed in a given period.
 
Social Impacts – The changes in individuals, communities, and societies impacted by a management plan or decision.
 
Spawning Stock Biomass – The total weight of sexually mature fish in a stock.
 
Spawning Percentage Ratio (SPR) – “The number of eggs that could be produced by an average recruit in a fished stock divided by the number of eggs that could be produced by an average recruit in an unfished stock. SPR can also be expressed as the spawning biomass per recruit (SSBR) of a fished stock divided by the SSBR of the stock before it was fished.” The key to understanding this seemingly Newtonian equation is to realize its relevance in defining the long-term health of a fished species. SPR is a critical component in establishing long-term management plans by defining the ability of a species to perpetuate itself despite fishing pressure.
 
Total Allowable Catch (TAC) – The number of pounds of fish that can be taken from a given population and still allow the population to grow or maintain itself, depending on management objectives. Often, the TAC is divided between user groups.
 
Year Class – Refers to the fish spawned and hatched in a given year. 
 
This rough summary attempts to encapsulate an ever-expanding system that becomes more complex as it grows. But within these leagues and divisions of management groups, cryptic terms, and special interests, is the framework for the future of our fisheries. Without a working knowledge of the system, we are reduced to being passive observers. And the first step to making an impact in this game is learning the rules. 

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