Council Guide: Part I: Background

What is the Pacific Fishery Management Council?

The Pacific Fishery Management Council (also known as the Council, Pacific Council, or PFMC) recommends fishery management measures to the Secretary of Commerce through the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The Pacific Council manages fisheries for salmon, groundfish, coastal pelagic species (sardines, anchovies, and mackerel), and highly migratory species (tunas, sharks, and swordfish) in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) three to 200 miles off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California. The Council also works with the International Pacific Halibut Commission to manage Pacific halibut fisheries, and has recently developed a Fishery Ecosystem Plan to enhance the Council’s species-specific management programs with more ecosystem science, broader ecosystem considerations, and management policies that coordinate Council management across its Fishery Management Plans and the California Current Ecosystem.

The Pacific Council is made up of 14 voting representatives from Oregon, Washington, California, and Idaho. Some represent state or tribal fish and wildlife agencies, and some are private citizens who are knowledgeable about recreational or commercial fishing or marine conservation. Except for the tribal representative, these citizens are chosen by the governors of the four states within the Council region, in conjunction with the Secretary of Commerce.

The Pacific Council is one of eight regional fishery management councils in the United States. The other regional fishery management councils are the North Pacific, Western Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, New England, Mid-Atlantic, and South Atlantic Fishery Management Councils. While these councils all operate in similar ways, there are many regional differences among them.

The entire fisheries management process is overseen by Congress, which controls funding for the councils, National Marine Fisheries Service, and the U.S. Coast Guard. States are also involved through their membership on the councils, their legislatures, and sometimes through research and enforcement. Interstate fishery management commissions help coordinate state efforts. For example, the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission coordinates efforts between Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, and Idaho and regional fishery management councils.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) is the principal law governing marine fisheries in the United States. It was originally adopted to extend control of U.S. waters to 200 nautical miles in the ocean; to phase out foreign fishing activities within this zone; to prevent overfishing, especially by foreign fleets; to allow overfished stocks to recover; and to conserve and manage fishery resources. The MSA is named after the late Senators Warren Magnuson of Washington and Ted Stevens of Alaska.

Congress passed the original MSA in 1976. It has since been amended several times, most recently in 2006, and as of spring 2014, Congress is working on reauthorizing and amending the Act again. Among other things, the MSA explains the role of regional fishery management councils and describes their functions and operating procedures. The MSA includes National Standards for management and outlines the contents of fishery management plans. In addition, it gives the Secretary of Commerce power to review, approve, and implement fishery management plans and other recommendations developed by the councils.

In 1996, Congress passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA), which revised the MSA and reauthorized it through 1999. This revision brought new requirements to prevent overfishing and rebuild overfished fisheries. The SFA required that each fishery management plan (FMP) 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. The SFA also added definitions for  “overfishing” and  “overfished.”

The SFA added three new National Standards to address fishing vessel safety, fishing communities, and bycatch. Several existing standards were revised. The MSA now contains ten National Standards for fishery conservation and management, with which all FMPs must comply.

In late 2006, Congress revised and reauthorized the MSA again. This revision (the “Fishery Conservation and Management Amendments of 2006”) did not add any National Standards, but made a number of changes related to establishment of annual catch limits, function of the Scientific and Statistical Committee, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process, rebuilding provisions, limited access privilege programs, and other areas. The MSA is now due to be reauthorized again.

National Standards of the Magnuson-Stevens Act (A summary):

Conservation and management measures shall:

  1. Prevent overfishing while achieving optimum yield.
  2. Be based upon the best scientific information available.
  3. Manage individual stocks as a unit throughout their range, to the extent practicable; interrelated stocks shall be managed as a unit or in close coordination.
  4. Not discriminate between residents of different states; any allocation of privileges must be fair and equitable.
  5. Where practicable, promote efficiency, except that no such measure shall have economic allocation as its sole purpose.
  6. Take into account and allow for variations among and contingencies in fisheries, fishery resources, and catches.
  7. Minimize costs and avoid duplications, where practicable.
  8. Take into account the importance of fishery resources to fishing communities to provide for the sustained participation of, and minimize adverse impacts to, such communities (consistent with conservation requirements).
  9. Minimize bycatch or mortality from bycatch.
  10. Promote safety of human life at sea.

Other Laws that Affect Fisheries Management

U.S. fishery regulations must comply with many laws apart from the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Some of these include NEPA, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, and the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. International agreements and organizations, such as the International Convention for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, and the United Nation’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, also play a role in shaping management of U.S. fisheries.

Management Area

The Pacific Fishery Management Council develops management measures for Federal waters (3-200 miles offshore) off Washington, Oregon, and California. State waters cover the area from shore to three miles seaward of the coast. Because fish move between state and Federal waters without regard to political boundaries, the Council’s plans generally cover the entire area out to 200 miles. They may also apply on the high seas (beyond the 200-mile limit) for some species. States are required to adopt regulations that are at least as stringent as Federal laws.

Who’s in Charge?

Managing fisheries is a complicated task, in part because there are so many states involved, all of which have their own agencies and laws. In some cases, other countries are also involved. In the U.S., individual states are responsible for managing fisheries within three miles offshore (although they must be consistent with Federal laws). Regional fishery management councils recommend management measures for fisheries in the EEZ; these measures are in turn subject to approval by NMFS. On the high seas, other countries may become involved in management. They also become involved when dealing with migratory fish stocks, like tunas, that move between different nations’ and territorial waters. Management of these fisheries usually requires international cooperation. For example, high seas driftnet fisheries in the Pacific Ocean are currently prohibited by a United Nations moratorium.

Foreign Fishing

One reason Congress adopted the original Magnuson-Stevens Act was to control foreign fishing near the U.S. coast. As a result of the Act, nearly all foreign fishing in U.S. waters has been eliminated. Domestic harvesting and processing have grown to replace this fishing effort. No foreign fishing currently takes place in the area managed by the Council. Joint ventures, which involved American fishing vessels delivering their catch to foreign processors at sea, have also been phased out. Before 1991, most joint ventures off the West Coast involved catching and processing Pacific whiting.

Foreign fishing in Council waters could occur again in the future if there are enough fish to satisfy both a domestic and foreign fishery. The Council would review each foreign application, and the Secretary of Commerce would issue permits for approved foreign operations. However, there have not been any recent applications by foreign fishers, and it is unlikely that foreign fishing will resume any time soon.