Fact Sheet: Trawl catch shares

First, a little history

The story of catch shares begins in 2000, when the groundfish fishery was declared a Federal disaster. Several species had been declared overfished, and the Council used trip limits to manage the fishery for species other than whiting. (Trip limits set the amount of fish allowed to be landed in a given two-month period). Responding to the stock rebuilding requirements of the Magnuson Stevens Act, the Council reduced trip limits and closed large areas of the continental shelf to fishing.

These restrictive trip limits had a negative consequence: they forced vessels to dump excess fish overboard, mostly dead. This was a wasteful and widely unpopular practice that needed to be changed.

At the same time, shorter and shorter seasons were making the whiting fisheries inflexible and inefficient. (The catcher-processor sector had formed its own private co-operative agreement in 1997, which was working well and was later included in the catch share program.)

The restrictions and closures to protect overfished species were very hard on the fleet and the communities that depended on a healthy fishing industry. Because the trawl fleet lands such a large amount of fish throughout the year, its health is critical to maintaining the fishing infrastructure (ice machines, hoists, processors) needed by other fisheries, including salmon, crab, shrimp, and others.

In 2003, a Federal buyout of trawl permits removed almost half of the capacity of the trawl fleet and allowed some trip limits to be increased. Although this helped somewhat, it did not solve the problem. Around that time, people began discussing the creation of a trawl catch share program.

Catch share programs can completely transform fisheries management. They have been used in many regions to solve problems related to too much effort pursuing too few fish. The Pacific Council designed its catch share program to balance the needs of the fishery with those of communities, new fishery entrants, and small boat fishermen. The goals included increasing individual accountability, reducing bycatch, and improving economic efficiency, among others. Fishermen, processors, community representatives, the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, West Coast states, nongovernmental organizations, and NOAA Fisheries all contributed to the program’s successful development and implementation.

The trawl catch share program was put in place in 2011 after eight years of discussion and dozens of public meetings. The Council continues to make adjustments to improve the system.

The groundfish fleet

The non-tribal commercial groundfish fishery has four sectors: limited entry trawl (including vessels that deliver to processors on shore and those that deliver at sea), limited entry fixed gear endorsed for sablefish, and limited entry fixed gear not endorsed for sablefish, and open access. (The fishery is described in detail in our groundfish fact sheet.) On average, the groundfish fishery is the second most valuable fishery on the West Coast, in some years exceeding the most valuable fishery, Dungeness crab.

The limited entry trawl sector accounts for over 90% of the total weight of the groundfish fishery and is generally a mixed-stock fishery, which means that it is difficult to target any single species without also catching some other species, including overfished stocks. Of the trawl gears, bottom trawl gear is least selective, and midwater trawl gear targeting whiting is most selective (over 98% whiting).

Just before the catch share program was put in place, there were roughly 170 trawl permits, 160 sablefish-endorsed fixed gear permits, and 65 other fixed gear permits. There were as many as 700 or 800 open access participants, although only 200 or 300 were “substantially engaged” in any given year.

How the program works

The catch share program included two major actions:

  • Creating the catch share system itself (Amendment 20 to the Groundfish Fishery Management Plan, or FMP).
  • Allocating among sectors the catch for many of the species covered under the quota system (Amendment 21 to the Groundfish FMP).

The catch share program created different management systems for the three main trawl sectors:

  • For vessels delivering to processors on shore, it created a system of individual fishing quotas (IFQs). 
  • For the at-sea mothership sector, it created catcher vessel co-ops. (Motherships are processors at sea that buy catch from shorebased vessels).
  • For catcher-processors (vessels which both catch and process fish, usually whiting), it continued the existing fleet co-op.

Each year, the Council sets harvest limits for each managed species (or species complex) based on stock assessments. Whiting is divided among the three trawl sectors (shorebased, mothership, and catcher processors), while bycatch for the at-sea whiting fishery is generally subtracted from the available catch before it is allocated among sectors. Other groundfish species are allocated only to the shorebased trawl sector.

Once sector allocation is complete, the species allocations go to their respective sectors. Shares may not be transferred between these sectors. 

One of the main goals of the catch share program was to make the fishery more efficient, which was expected to lead to fleet consolidation. The Council recognized that too much consolidation could harm communities and crew. Therefore, for each species in the shorebased IFQ program, the Council placed limits on the amount of quota shares an individual could control and the amount of quota pounds a vessel could fish. For the mothership sector, limits were placed on the amount of catch history any entity could own, the amount a vessel could catch, and the amount any single mothership processor could process. No limits were provided for the catcher-processor sector, since allocations for that sector went to the entire sector. 

Diagram showing how groundfish are allocated in the trawl catch share fishery
Sector allocation in the trawl catch share fishery

The Council also designed an “adaptive management” program. Ten percent of the shoreside nonwhiting quota shares are set aside into a public trust pool (adaptive management program quota shares) for use by managers to modify program impacts. These quota shares can be used to support community and processor stability, conservation, new entry, or unintended and unforeseen consequences. For example, if a certain port was likely to lose landings, these shares could be used to provide incentives to fishermen to continue to land in that port. To date, a need for this quota has not been identified and so the related quota pounds have been passed through to quota share owners.

Spotlight on sectors

The shorebased sector

The shorebased program covers catcher vessels that deliver to traditional fishing ports, as opposed to catcher vessels that deliver to at-sea processors.

The shorebased IFQ program includes 29 different groundfish species and complexes (including whiting) that are harvested by trawlers delivering to processors on shore. Additionally, individual bycatch quota is required for Pacific halibut.

The catch shares allocated for each species for the long-term are called quota shares.  At the start of the catch share program, quota shares were allotted to the owners of catcher vessel limited entry trawl permits based on their catch history and other factors. In addition, shorebased processors received 20 percent of the shorebased sector’s whiting quota shares. Quota shares can be transferred among participants and to new entrants, including crew members, communities, processors, or any other entity eligible to own a U.S fishing vessel.

Each year, quota share owners receive an allocation of quota pounds that must be used to cover their catch. Vessels are then responsible for buying or leasing the quota pounds in order to cover their harvest. If their harvest exceeds their quota pound holdings, they may not continue to fish until they have acquired quota pounds to cover their deficit. Vessels with trawl permits are also allowed to use non-trawl gears to catch their trawl quota pounds (known as gear switching).

Shorebased vessels generally harvest a mix of species, though for whiting trips the incidental catch of other species is low. Their ability to harvest all of their allocations depends on their ability to control the mix of species in their catch. Some species are always likely to be in shorter supply and to limit overall harvest. 

For example, quota pounds for overfished species are usually more expensive than for other species, because the allowed harvest is low and fewer quota pounds are issued. This creates an incentive to avoid known hotspots for these species and to develop gear to avoid them. Those who are best able to avoid the overfished species fare best economically, as they can land the rest of their quota without being shut down. If they can avoid catching overfished species, they can also generate revenue by leasing their unneeded quota to others.

More recently, sablefish has limited the catch of some complexes.  While avoiding sablefish might allow more of those complexes to be harvested, they are a valuable stock, so avoiding sablefish could substantially decrease trip revenue.

The mothership sector

Motherships are at-sea processors that receive deliveries from other vessels. The mothership co-op program now covers only whiting, but it initially also covered four overfished rockfish species. Since those species have been rebuilt, the Council has recommended that they be managed with set-asides rather than catch quota.

Owners of trawl permits who had sufficient participation history were allocated mothership quota as “catch history” rather than quota shares. While quota shares are divisible and can be owned by someone who does not own a trawl limited entry permit, mothership catch history cannot be divided and can only be transferred as a unit from one limited entry permit to another.

Unlike the shorebased IFQ program, where each vessel is responsible to the government for its own compliance, in the mothership program, individual vessels are responsible to the co-op and the co-op is responsible to the government for complying with its allocation. When a permit owner joins a catcher-vessel co-op, its whiting catch history is assigned to the co-op, and an annual allocation is made to the co-op based on the catch history of its members. Permit owners who do not join a co-op have their history assigned to an open fishery in which their vessels compete for the available harvest. Thus far, all vessels have chosen to form a single co-op serving all motherships. As part of the program, mothership processors were also issued mothership limited entry permits.

Catcher-processor co-ops

When the license limitation program was created in 1994, catcher processors bought permits from smaller vessels and combined them into larger permits to accommodate the catcher-processors. Ten such permits were created through this process. In 1997, these permits joined together in their own co-op. The catch share program protected the catcher-processor co-op by continuing an earlier limitation on new entrants to this sector. Each year, sector participants join to form a single co-op, which manages the sector’s entire allocation of whiting. If at some time in the future the sector fails to form a single co-op, the system will convert to an IFQ program and quota shares will be allocated equally among all catcher-processor permits.

Ongoing program development

When the program was put in place, many old trawl regulations remained that might no longer be needed. The Council has been looking at these old regulations and considering whether to change or remove them. For example, the Council extended the shoreside whiting season, eliminated several restrictive gear regulations, and allowed vessels to carry multiple trawl gear types at the same time.  Additionally, the Council is finalizing recommendations to eliminate the shelf area closure for the use of trawl gear. These “trailing actions” are described on the Council website.


The catch share program substantially reduced bycatch, and efficiency for the fleet as a whole has increased. The fleet generally appears to be doing better economically, although the expected consolidation has taken place. Since, under the catch share program, fishermen know exactly how many fish they are allowed to take before the season begins, they can plan for the season and enter into more secure marketing and processing arrangements. They also have the flexibility to time landings to the best market conditions. They have more freedom to streamline their businesses and are held individually accountable for every fish brought on board their vessels. Catch shares provide a clear economic rationale for conserving resources. Just as shareholders in a company want the business to prosper so their shares gain value, fishermen in catch share systems need the fishery to remain sustainable.

On the other hand, it appears that many available species are being under-harvested, likely due to concerns about catching overfished species. This effect may decline as species are rebuilt.

For more information on the effects of the program, see the five-year catch review finalized in 2017. 

For more information, please contact Council Staff Officer Jim Seger.

Fact Sheet: Exempted fishing permits

Exempted fishing permits (EFPs) allow for fishing activities that are exempt from the usual fishing regulations. They are a way for people and organizations involved in the fishery to experiment with new gears or techniques. The Council recommends EFPs to National Marine Fisheries Service, which is responsible for granting them.

Examples of past projects supported by an EFP include developing new gear types for an underutilized fishery and developing devices to reduce catch of prohibited species.

Why EFPs?

EFPs are commonly used to explore ways to reduce impacts on depressed stocks, encourage innovation and efficiency, measure the bycatch of overfished or other constrained stocks associated with certain fishing strategies, and evaluate current and proposed management measures. EFPs can also be used to study how to increase the use of underutilized species, explore areas of expansion for the groundfish fishery, and make harvesting more efficient.

Who can apply?

Anyone who would like to undertake fishing activities that would otherwise be prohibited, but fit within the purposes of an EFP, can apply for one. This includes Federal or state agencies, marine fish commissions, nonprofit organizations, and individuals. You don’t have to be the owner or operator of the vessel(s) for which the EFP is requested, but a copy of the permit must be on a participating vessel at all times during the EFP project.

Applying for an EFP

The deadlines for submitting EFP proposals varies depending on the fishery. (EFPs are conducted for groundfish, highly migratory species, and coastal pelagic species, but not salmon). Contact the relevant Council staff (listed below) about the specific schedule for submitting proposals for Council review.

Applicants for an EFP in any fishery must submit a completed application in writing that explains and justifies the goals of the EFP. The advisory bodies, Council, or Scientific and Statistical Committee may ask for additional information. It can take several Council meetings for all of the necessary review to occur. Applicants are required to collect data and provide reports on results of approved EFPs.

See examples:

For best results

For best results, you should work with a NMFS Science Center, or other research organization, on the experimental design before submitting an EFP application to assure that your approach is sound. This will speed up the review process.

Once a Council recommendation is forwarded, NMFS publishes a Federal Register notice of the receipt of your application. NMFS may also need to write an environmental analysis of the impacts of the EFP before the permit can be issued. Given this process, plan on at least 6 to 18 months from the date of application submittal before the EFP is issued.

More information

For more information on EFPs, contact:

All are available by telephone at 503-820-2280.

Fact sheet: Habitat and essential fish habitat

Young fish swim among the weeds
School of juvenile chinook/king salmon Photo credit: USFWS/Togiak National Wildlife Refuge

Habitat is the environment where an animal lives, feeds, reproduces, and grows.

Many fish move through different habitats during their lives. For example, a fish might spawn in the surf zone, but live as an adult in open water; or might move seasonally into different depths or substrates. Fish move into different habitats for feeding, spawning, to avoid predation, and for other reasons.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) identifies habitat loss as a key issue of concern, and requires Councils and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to identify and protect the habitats of species managed under fishery management plans.

Councils may restrict certain fishing locations or gear to protect EFH, deepsea corals, or other habitats not specifically designated as EFH.

Essential fish habitat is “those waters and substrate necessary to fish for spawning, breeding, feeding, or growth to maturity.” This may include areas that were historically used by fish, like a river above a dam.

A habitat area of particular concern (HAPC) is “a specific habitat area or type of habitat that plays an important role in a species’ life cycle, or that is sensitive, rare, or vulnerable.” Councils may restrict fishing in HAPCs.

Essential fish habitat (EFH)

EFH is “those waters and substrate necessary to fish for spawning, breeding, feeding, or growth to maturity,” including areas that were historically used by fish, like a river above a dam. In their fishery  management plans, Councils must identify and describe EFH for all life cycles of each managed species. 

These descriptions must address each life stage and managed species, and must include maps and other details related to habitat needs. Councils must periodically review and update EFH provisions as new information becomes available. 

EFH descriptions must address fishing impacts that may adversely affect EFH, and may include fishing-related actions to protect EFH such as time and area closures, gear restrictions, and other actions.

Each fishery management plan must also describe impacts from non-fishing activities that could affect EFH. In cases involving a Federal action, NMFS must provide the “action agency” with conservation recommendations to avoid, minimize, or mitigate for the impacts. Such Federal actions might include permits issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for dredging or jetty maintenance, or U.S. Forest Service plans for forest management activities.

Fishery management plans may also include “habitat areas of particular concern,” which are a subset of EFH designed to highlight especially important habitat areas or types that should be given greater consideration in developing conservation recommendations for both fishing and non-fishing activities.

Groundfish EFH

The Council’s groundfish fishery management plan includes more than 100 species that range over the entire U.S. West Coast Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Groundfish include many species of rockfish, sablefish, flatfish, and Pacific whiting that are often (but not exclusively) found on or near the ocean floor or other structures.

Groundfish EFH includes all waters and substrate from the high tide line (including estuaries) to 3,500 meters (1,914 fathoms) in depth. (For a more technical explanation, go to http://tinyurl.com/24kvnx7 section 7.2). The figure below shows the overall extent of Pacific Coast groundfish EFH.

The Council identified five HAPC types: estuaries, canopy kelp, seagrass, rocky reefs, and “areas of interest.” Areas of interest can include a variety of submarine features, such as banks, seamounts, and canyons. They can also include other types of spatially-delineated areas such as all Washington State waters and the Cowcod East Conservation Area off Southern California.

The Council has also adopted measures to minimize and mitigate the adverse impacts of fishing on groundfish EFH. These include areas closed to bottom trawling and/or all bottom contact fishing (such as longline and pot fishing) to protect sensitive habitats.

Coastal pelagic species EFH

The coastal pelagic species (CPS) fishery includes four finfish (Pacific sardine, Pacific (chub) mackerel, northern anchovy, and jack mackerel), and market squid. CPS finfish generally live nearer to the surface than the sea floor, and can move substantial distances throughout their lives. The definition of EFH for CPS is based on the temperature range where they are found, and on the geographic area where they occur at any life stage. This range varies widely according to ocean temperatures.

The east-west boundary of CPS EFH includes all marine and estuary waters from the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington to the limits of the EEZ and above the thermocline where sea surface temperatures range between 10° and 26° centigrade. (A thermocline is an area where water temperatures change rapidly, usually from colder at the bottom to warmer on top). The southern boundary is the U.S./Mexico maritime boundary. The northern boundary is more changeable and is defined as the position of the 10° C isotherm, which varies seasonally and annually. (The 10° C isotherm is a rough estimate of the lowest temperature where finfish are found, and represents their northern boundary).

Salmon EFH

Salmon range from more than 1,000 miles inland to thousands of miles out at sea, and thus depend on a wide variety of habitats to complete their life cycle. EFH in fresh water includes all of the water bodies on the West Coast that salmon historically occupied, except the habitat above some impassable barriers. Salmon EFH also includes the entire West Coast EEZ north of Point Conception, California, and the marine waters off Alaska that are designated salmon EFH by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The figure on the next page shows the overall extent of EFH for Chinook, coho, and Puget Sound pink salmon. Sockeye salmon, chum salmon, steelhead, and pink stocks originating outside of Puget Sound are not federally managed, and thus do not have EFH established.

The Council is required to minimize the negative impacts of fishing activities on essential salmon habitat, such as the effects of fishing gear (to the extent the gear impacts habitat, or removes salmon prey species), the effect of salmon fishing on reducing nutrients in streams due to fewer salmon carcasses in the spawning grounds, the presence of marine debris and derelict gear, shellfish harvest, and recreational fishing activities. The Council may use gear restrictions, time and area closures, and harvest limits to reduce negative impacts on salmon EFH. However, the Council has not imposed such restrictions on the salmon fishery.

Highly migratory species EFH

Defining EFH for highly mobile species such as tuna, swordfish, and sharks is a challenging task, not unlike defining EFH for coastal pelagic species. These species range widely in the ocean, both in terms of area and depth, and often spawn well outside the U.S. EEZ. Their habitat is defined by temperature ranges, salinity, oxygen levels, currents, shelf edges, and seamounts, and varies substantially among species.

The fishery management plan for highly migratory species contains descriptions of their EFH. EFH for the tuna species generally encompasses Federal waters off southern California, but for albacore tuna adults, EFH extends north to the U.S.-Canada border. In addition, some species are nearer to shore than others, or prefer different temperature ranges. EFH for sharks varies, but is associated more with the EEZ off California that off the Pacific Northwest.

The Habitat Committee

The Council’s Habitat Committee (HC) provides advice to the Council on a wide variety of habitat-related issues.  The HC works with other advisory bodies on habitat issues, helps develop ways to resolve habitat problems and avoid future habitat conflicts, and makes recommendations for actions that will help achieve the Council’s habitat objectives. Meetings are open to the public.

EFH consultation

The National Marine Fisheries Service is responsible for providing conservation recommendations for any Federal agency action that may adversely affect EFH.  Actions that occur outside of EFH, but that might affect the habitat, must also be taken into account. Private landowners do not need to consult with NMFS on private land activities (however, such activities may be subject to other regulations). Only if the project is funded, permitted, or authorized by a Federal agency and the project may adversely affect EFH is consultation with NMFS required. In addition, Councils and NMFS may issue conservation recommendations on state agency actions that may adversely affect EFH. 

Deep water habitat protections

As part of the review of Pacific Coast Groundfish EFH, concluded in 2018, the Council also approved habitat protections for benthic habitats deeper than 3500 meters. The Magnuson Act includes discretionary provisions that may be used to provide habitat or species protections in areas outside of designated EFH. The new provisions prohibit groundfish bottom contact fishing activities in all U.S. EEZ waters deeper than 3500 meters. Although there is no bottom contact fishing occurring in those areas, the Council would consider exempted fishing permit applications if someone wished to begin fishing there.

For more information, contact Council staff officer Kerry Griffin (Kerry.griffin@noaa.gov) or call the number on the front page of this fact sheet. For information on the Habitat Committee, contact Jennifer.Gilden@noaa.gov.

Fact Sheet: Annual catch limits and other management thresholds

The Magnuson-Stevens Act requires annual catch limits and other management thresholds for all actively managed stocks and stock complexes. The terms and reference points used in the Pacific Council’s harvest management frameworks are described below. 

Common acronyms

MSY     Maximum sustainable yield. A long-term average yield usually estimated in a stock assessment.
OY        Optimum yield. Long-term average amount of desired yield from a stock, complex, or fishery. OY considers overall benefits to the nation, including economic factors.
OFLOverfishing limit. Best estimate of the maximum amount of a stock that can be caught in a year without resulting in overfishing.
ABCAcceptable biological catch. An annual catch level that considers scientific uncertainty.
ACLAnnual catch limit. The amount of fish that can be harvested annually.
AMAccountability measure(s). Measures to ensure a harvest stays within its ACL.
ACTAnnual catch target. A target that accounts for management uncertainty.
HGHarvest guideline. A harvest target for a sector or sectors, a region, or any other subset of the fishery for any particular fishing season.

Maximum sustainable yield

A long-term average yield usually estimated in a stock assessment

Maximum sustainable yield (MSY) is the maximum catch that can be harvested from a fishery on a continuing basis under prevailing conditions. If a stock or stock complex is harvested on a continuing basis at MSY (corresponds to “fishing mortality at MSY,” denoted by FMSY), its abundance will approach a long-term average biomass (“biomass at MSY,” or BMSY), at which it will fluctuate.

MSY, FMSY and BMSY should be estimated for each actively managed stock based on the best scientific information available. When there is not enough quality data to make good estimates, or when there is great uncertainty in these estimates, these values are assumed using “proxies.” Proxy FMSY and BMSY reference points are currently used for all West Coast groundfish stocks.

Optimum yield

Considers the overall benefit to the nation, including economic factors

Optimum yield (OY) is the long-term average amount of fish that will provide the greatest overall benefit to the nation, particularly with respect to food production and recreational opportunities, and taking into account the protection of marine ecosystems. OY is prescribed on the basis of the MSY from the fishery, as reduced by any relevant economic, social, or ecological factor. In other words, OY is the amount of desired yield from a stock, complex, or fishery. The OY cannot exceed the MSY, and must be achieved while preventing overfishing. If a fishery is already overfished, the OY must provide for rebuilding to a level consistent with producing the MSY. Councils must specify OYs in their fishery management plans.

Overfishing limit

The most fish that can be caught in a year without overfishing

The overfishing limit (OFL) is the maximum amount of a stock that can be caught in a year without resulting in overfishing. Groundfish OFLs for assessed stocks are typically determined by multiplying the estimated abundance of the exploitable biomass of a stock by the FMSY harvest rate.  There are also methods for determining OFLs for unassessed stocks. Setting OFLs is a scientific (as opposed to policy) determination made by the Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC). OFLs are set for every actively managed stock or stock complex.

Acceptable biological catch

Measures scientific uncertainty

The acceptable biological catch (ABC) is an annual catch level recommended by the SSC based on the OFL. The ABC considers the uncertainty in estimating the OFL and, under the Pacific Coast Groundfish Fishery Management Plan, is always less than the OFL. An annual catch limit cannot exceed the ABC. In general, the more scientific uncertainty there is in estimating the OFL, the bigger the difference between the ABC and OFL.

An ABC control rule is a specified approach to calculate the ABC for a stock. It is established by the Council with advice from its SSC. The SSC’s recommendation for ABC should be based on the control rule, although exceptions are allowed if they are well-justified. The P* ABC control rule is the most common ABC rule used by the Pacific Council (see details below).

P* (P-star) and σ (sigma): The risk of overfishing

P* (the probability of overfishing) is a value that equates to the risk of exceeding the OFL. A high P* of 0.5 means there is a 50% risk of overfishing and, when applied to set the ABC, determines an ABC equal to the OFL (which is not allowed for Council-managed groundfish). A low P* of 0.1 means a 10% risk of overfishing.

The ABC buffer is calculated by applying the P* to a biomass variance (σ); high sigmas coupled with low P*s determine larger ABC buffers. The SSC determines the sigma, which varies by the category of stock. Stocks are categorized by the level of uncertainty in determining the OFL; higher sigmas are specified for stocks with greater uncertainty. The P* value is a policy determination made by the Council reflecting their preferred level of risk tolerance in setting an overall harvest level for the stock or stock complex. The highest P* allowed for groundfish is 0.45.

Annual catch limit

The total catch limit for an actively managed stock or stock complex

The annual catch limit (ACL) is the amount of total catch (i.e., landings + discard mortalities) specified for an actively-managed stock or stock complex. The ACL can be set equal to or less than the ABC. The ACL accounts for all sources of fishing-related mortality including catches in research activities. The Council sets the ACL based on conservation concerns (e.g., rebuilding objectives), socioeconomic considerations, ecological considerations, and/or the preferred level of risk in harvesting the stock or stock complex. Inseason management of the fishery is done to prevent exceeding an ACL, including early closure of the fishery, if inseason catch monitoring projects early attainment of an ACL.

Accountability measures

Ensure harvest stays within an ACL

Accountability measures are management controls that prevent ACLs from being exceeded. They can also correct an overage (over-harvest) of an ACL if it occurs.

Accountability measures fall into two categories: inseason catch monitoring and fishery adjustments, and other measures specified before the start of a fishing season to reduce the risk of exceeding an ACL.

Inseason adjustments are restrictions that can be put in place during the fishing season and are designed to keep a catch limit from being exceeded. They are usually short-term and can include seasonal adjustments, trip or bag limits, area closures, or temporary closure of the fishery.

Accountability measures can also be triggered if an ACL is exceeded. These are restrictions put in place to address the cause of the initial overage and prevent it from happening again. They can involve modifications to management measures decided during a fishing season (i.e., inseason adjustments) or precautionary management measures (e.g., annual catch targets) specified for the following fishing season to account for the previous season’s catch overage.

Annual catch target

A management target accounting for management uncertainty

The annual catch target (ACT) is an accountability measure and is the amount of annual catch of a stock or stock complex that is the management target of the fishery. A stock or stock complex’s ACT, when specified, is less than the ACL and is either sector-specific (i.e., a sector’s allocation of the ACL) or a catch level less than the ACL to account for management uncertainty. Designation of an ACT is not required under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

Harvest guideline

A season’s harvest

Harvest guideline is another accountability measure and is a harvest target for a sector or sectors, a region, or any other subset of the fishery for any particular fishing season. Harvest guidelines are used to allocate the allowable harvest of a stock or stock complex by time, area, or sector as needed to provide equitable and sustainable harvest opportunities to affected fishing sectors and fishing communities.

All U.S. fisheries have a similar harvest management framework in place. The Pacific Council describes its harvest management framework in Amendment 16 of the salmon fishery management plan, Amendment 9 of the coastal pelagic species fishery management plan, Amendment 23 of the groundfish fishery management plan, and Amendment 2 of the highly migratory species fishery management plan.


Table showing relationship between harvest specifications and management measures

Success in preventing overfishing also requires keeping management and scientific uncertainty in the measurements to a minimum. As scientific information improves, scientific uncertainty decreases. As reporting of catches becomes more accurate, and fishery controls become more effective, management uncertainty also decreases with less need for specifying accountability measures.

Compiled from several sources, including “Preventing Overfishing,” a website developed by NOAA (www.preventoverfishing.com).

Fact Sheet: Overfishing and rebuilding

Currently the Council is rebuilding one stock: yelloweye rockfish.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act, or MSA (the primary legislation that governs fishery management) requires that every Council end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks. Therefore, if a Council-managed species is overfished or is being overfished, the Council must reduce catches to a level that allows the population to rebuild to a healthy size

The terms “overfishing” and “overfished” are defined in the MSA. While stocks may decline for reasons other than fishing (for example, habitat loss or environmental factors), at this point these terms are still used to indicate the status of the stock.

Stock status determinations

The amount of fishing a stock can sustain depends on its productivity. When no fishing takes place, productivity is actually lower because growth and mortality of the stock are roughly balanced.

As the size of the stock, or biomass, approaches maximum sustainable yield (designated BMSY), the stock becomes more productive because there is less competition for resources. At this point the stock actually generates more fish than are needed to replace fish that die of natural causes. Most fish populations can be fished well below their unfished biomass level (the stock size if fishing never occurred) and still be sustained and capable of returning to their unfished status. For a very productive stock, BMSY can be a small fraction of the unfished biomass.

One of the main goals of fishery management is to keep stocks around BMSY. If the population falls below that level, productivity can decrease because there aren’t as many fish reproducing. Abundance indicators are in place to help managers understand the stock’s status, or the health of the spawning population. If a population starts to fall below a certain level, these indicators can trigger a precautionary reduction in harvest (for example, annual catch limits).

If a stock is undergoing overfishing or is overfished, National Marine Fisheries Service declares a stock status change and the Council must develop measures to help ensure the stock can return to a healthy state. If a stock is declared overfished, then a rebuilding plan is required. Rebuilding plans outline measures to be taken until the stock is rebuilt.


Overfishing occurs when the level of harvest or fishing-related mortality is too high compared to the estimated population size (BMSY). The gauge to determine if a stock is subject to overfishing is called the maximum fishing mortality threshold (MFMT), and is typically described as a harvest or exploitation rate. If stock has exceeded MFMT in a given year, then it has been subject to overfishing. If overfishing continues and the population is driven too low, the stock may become overfished.


A fish stock is “overfished” when its population size (in terms of spawning biomass) falls below a certain level or threshold. The minimum stock size threshold (MSST) is commonly used to determine if a stock is overfished and is typically set at half of BMSY. In the case of salmon, MSST is the number of adult spawners associated with MSY (SMSY). Stocks can become overfished due to overfishing, but that is not always the case. In salmon management, a stock is considered overfished if the three-year geometric mean of spawning escapement is less than MSST.


After a stock has been declared overfished and the population begins to improve, the status changes from “overfished” to “rebuilding” once the stock reaches MSST, but has not yet regained BMSY or SMSY. This shows the population is making progress towards meeting the rebuilding goals. 


A stock is considered “rebuilt” when the population meets or exceeds BMSY, or, in the case of salmon, when spawning escapement exceeds the three-year geometric mean of SMSY.

Rebuilding Plans

Rebuilding plans direct the process of rebuilding overfished species. There are three important aspects to rebuilding: the abundance of the spawning stock, the time needed to rebuild the stock, and the rate of fishing that allows the stock to increase to the target level (BMSY or SMSY). A rebuilding plan prescribes the management measures and strategy that will be used to rebuild the fish stock. Often, the conditions triggering the stock’s low abundance are environmental, yet the Council must do what it can to help the stock rebuild.

Certain elements of rebuilding plans are pre-determined at the national level. For example, time limits for rebuilding are set out in the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The Council is able to choose a fishing mortality rate, the corresponding annual level of fishing, and the duration of the rebuilding plan within the statutory limits. When developing a rebuilding plan, the Council must also take into consideration the needs of the tribal, commercial, and recreational fishing interests and the economic importance of the fisheries to coastal communities.

Rebuilding Time Frame

Two boundaries, called TMIN and TMAX, are used to determine the amount of time required to rebuild a stock (the T stands for time). The minimum boundary (TMIN) is set by calculating how long the stock would take to rebuild if no fish were caught. This depends on life history traits affecting the productivity of the stock. TMAX is the maximum allowable time for stock rebuilding. It is set by Federal law, and must be no more than 10 years if the stock is capable of rebuilding that quickly. Otherwise, the statutory maximum time to rebuild (TMAX) is determined based on calculating the minimum time to rebuild (TMIN) plus one mean generation time. Mean generation time is the estimated time it takes a spawning female to be replaced by a spawning female in the next generation.

Rebuilding analyses

The Council relies on rebuilding analyses, which provide estimates of the time to rebuild under different harvest strategies.

Rebuilding analyses typically describe rebuilding in terms of probability, or the likelihood the stock will rebuild under varying time intervals. Probability is also a measure of risk. If a particular course of action is less likely to produce the desired outcome, it may be considered riskier.

The rebuilding analyses that the Council uses to determine rebuilding harvest policies estimate the probability that the overfished stock will rebuild by TMAX or any other interval under a given harvest strategy. Rebuilding probabilities inform a crucial policy choice: lower harvest levels result in a higher probability that the stock will rebuild in time, and vice versa.

The median time to rebuild in a rebuilding analysis under any given harvest rate or strategy is the year predicted to have a 50% probability that the stock will reach BMSY by this year. The Council usually uses the median time to rebuild as the target year (TTARGET) in formulating its policy recommendation, as long as it’s no greater than TMAX. By court precedent and national policy, rebuilding probabilities cannot be less than 50%.

Balancing tradeoffs

Rebuilding a stock is a tradeoff between sharply reducing catches in the short term to rebuild a stock quickly, or allowing more catch and waiting longer for a stock to rebuild.

In finding a balance between rebuilding stocks quickly and allowing some fishing opportunities during rebuilding, the Council is limited by the biology of the stock and by national policy. All other things being equal, a stock will rebuild fastest if there is no fishing at all, but this would be hard on fishing communities, and the Council is required to take community impacts into account.

Choosing a timeframe can be difficult and controversial. If managers choose a very early target date (only a few years after the lower time limit, TMIN), then almost all fishing may have to cease in order for the stock to recover. Catch limits may be too low to allow access to co-mingled, healthy target stocks. On the other hand, if managers opt for a target year far in the future (very close to the upper time limit, TMAX), it will take longer to realize the economic and ecological benefits of a rebuilt stock.

Fact Sheet: National Environmental Policy Act

NEPA, or the National Environmental Policy Act, was enacted in 1970. NEPA is a major environmental law which applies whenever Federal funds (your tax dollars) are used on a proposed project, such as removing a dam. Conservation and management of a renewable resource (for example, managing a fishery) must also abide by NEPA rules.

NEPA [42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.] establishes national environmental policy and goals for the protection, maintenance, and enhancement of the environment and provides a process for implementing these goals within Federal agencies.

NEPA requirements

NEPA requires Federal agencies to disclose the environmental consequences of a proposed action, and to investigate and document alternatives to the proposed action. Agencies must make all relevant information available to the public, with opportunities for public comment before a decision is made.

The NEPA process

There are three levels of analysis under NEPA: determining whether a categorical exclusion applies; preparing an environmental assessment (EA) or finding of no significant impact (FONSI); and preparing an environmental impact statement (EIS).

Categorical Exclusion: An action may be categorically excluded from a detailed environmental analysis if a Federal agency has determined that it has no significant environmental impact. Many agencies have lists of actions that are categorically excluded from environmental evaluation under their NEPA regulations.

Environmental Assessment/FONSI: At the second level of analysis, a Federal agency prepares a written environmental assessment to determine whether or not an undertaking would significantly affect the environment. If the answer is no, the agency issues a “finding of no significant impact,” or FONSI, which may include measures to mitigate any impacts.

Environmental Impact Statement: An EIS is a more detailed evaluation of the proposed action and alternatives. If an agency expects a project to significantly impact the environment, and sometimes when a project is controversial, it may prepare an EIS without having to first prepare an EA.

The public, other agencies, and outside parties may provide input into the preparation of an EIS and then comment on the draft. After the final EIS is prepared and a decision is made, the agency must prepare a public record of its decision explaining how the findings of the EIS were incorporated into the decision‐making process.

Components of an environmental impact statement

The basic components of an EIS include:

  • Purpose and need of a proposed action (e.g., reduce overfishing of a rockfish)
  • Alternatives including the agency’s preferred alternative(end fishing altogether, allow a small amount of fishing, do nothing)
  • Affected environment (includes the fishermen, fishing communities, the resource, and the environment)
  • Environmental consequences (how will the action affect the economics of the fishery, the communities, the resource, etc.?)

The “no action” alternative

A “no action” or “status quo” alternative is required by NEPA and acts as a benchmark. For example, if the Council proposed to change how a fishery is managed, an EIS would need to document the consequences of  not taking action along with the proposed action and other reasonable alternatives.

Choosing an alternative

The NEPA process requires the Council to weigh many factors when choosing a preferred alternative. For example, the biological effects of catch limits must be weighed against the economic and social impacts to the participants of the fishery before the Council chooses a preferred alternative. However, National Standard 1 of the Magnuson‐Stevens Act directs the Council to choose alternatives that prevent overfishing while achieving optimum yield.

NEPA and fisheries management

In order to simplify documentation for the public and decision‐makers, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the fishery management Councils have often combined fishery management plans, plan amendments, and proposed regulations and EISs into one integrated document. By including the four main requirements of NEPA (above) in an EIS, presenting the information to the public before a decision is made, and then presenting a preferred alternative based upon the research and public comment, NMFS and the Council will have made an informed decision, which is the goal of NEPA.

NEPA is just one of the many laws that apply to the fishery management process as dictated by the Magnuson‐Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (see our MSA fact sheet). Other laws include the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, Executive Orders, Regulatory Flexibility Act, and Paperwork Reduction Act.

Why must the Council follow NEPA?

NMFS is the lead agency in implementing fishery management decisions, and takes responsibility for environmental documentation (although Council staff also contribute to NEPA analyses). Since NOAA is a Federal agency where Federal funds are used, NEPA is required.

NEPA and public involvement

Both NEPA and the Magnuson‐Stevens Act encourage public involvement. In creating an EIS, the Council holds public scoping meetings and public hearings that serve as opportunities for public comment. In addition, the process includes comment periods during which the Council is open to receive written comments concerning a specific management plan. Responses to public comments are incorporated and into the final EIS.

Before NEPA, Federal agencies weren’t necessarily required to disclose information to the public before performing an action. Now, because of NEPA, agencies often hold hearings and meetings that provide the public with an opportunity to get involved in the process. The public can comment on proposed management alternatives or propose new solutions that the agency might have overlooked in satisfying a purpose and need. The Council highly values this public input. For more information, see our fact sheet “Getting Involved.”

NEPA Contact: Kit Dahl

Fact Sheet: Marine Reserves

Marine Protected Areas

Diagram showing the difference between marine protected areas and other types of protected area

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are broadly defined as ocean, estuarine, or (in some cases) freshwater areas that have been designated to provide protections for natural or cultural resources. In the fisheries world, this typically means an MPA is designed to protected important habitat features, or to provide a refuge for marine species. The umbrella term of MPA includes related management areas such as marine reserves and fisheries conservation areas. MPAs do not inherently include any restrictions or management measures, although they almost always include some form of restrictions to protect the resources therein.

Marine reserves are a subset of MPAs, and are typically more restrictive, often including complete restrictions on fishing or removing natural resources (“no-take” marine reserves). Marine reserves can be designated to conserve sedentary species (those that stay in place) or to hedge against scientific uncertainty. They are particularly helpful for sedentary species that produce more offspring as they get older, like most rockfish. Fishery conservation areas are typically put in place to protect specific stocks or assemblages from fishing mortality. In both cases, they fall under the general definition of MPA, and are created for specific conservation purposes such as habitat protection or stock recovery.

MPAs have educational and research value as well as a conservation benefit. To successfully manage these resources, managers need better knowledge of the biology, habits, and behaviors of fish stocks and the ecosystems that support them. And public outreach and education efforts also serve to inform the public. The Marine Conservation Institute’s MPA Atlas includes a comprehensive list of MPAs around the world. The NOAA MPA Center also includes many MPA-related resources.

Flow chart showing marine protected area designation process

How does the Council use MPAs?

The Council employs several variations of MPAs, including areas closed for habitat protection, for species conservation, and for bycatch reduction. Most involve the groundfish fishery, since the gear used in that fishery is more likely to affect habitat than the gear used in other Council fisheries. Often, a closure designed for one purpose will have other benefits. For example, the Council’s bottom trawl rockfish conservation area (RCA) was designed to minimize mortality of overfished groundfish species. However, during the 16 years the bottom trawl RCA was in place, the habitats in those areas benefited from being largely untouched by bottom trawl gear. See the “Area Closures” fact sheet for a summary of closed areas developed by the Council and NMFS.

Essential Fish Habitat Conservation Areas (EFHCAs) are designed to protect benthic (ocean floor) habitats from groundfish bottom trawling or other bottom contact fishing gear. The configuration of EFHCAs was revised under Groundfish FMP Amendment 28. It includes the ‘bottom trawl footprint’ closure in waters deeper than 700 fathoms.

The Council’s deepwater closure uses the Council’s Federally-granted authority to close waters deeper than 3500 meters to all bottom contact groundfish gear, primarily to protect deep sea corals and sponges.

The Cowcod Conservation Area (CCA) is a large area in the Southern California Bight closed to bottom trawl fishing gear. It was designed to minimize mortality on cowcod after it was declared an overfished species.

State MPAs and Marine Reserves

Within the three-mile state waters boundary, coastal states have authority to establish MPAs, including marine reserves and no-take marine reserves. Numerous MPAs have been established in state waters all along the West Coast, including in Puget Sound, Washington. The purposes include research, species conservation, and protection of sensitive intertidal areas.

Council authority over MPAs

The Council’s authority over MPAs rests in its fishery management authorities under the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), the primary act that oversees fisheries management in the United States. Councils may close areas to certain fishing gears, establish seasonal closures, or take other actions for habitat protection or species conservation. Under the MSA, the Council proposes regulations for review, approval, and implementation by National Marine Fisheries Service.

While the Council can recommend the creation of MPAs under its MSA authority, it has limited ability to protect fish and habitat in the MPA from anything other than fishing impacts. For example, it does not control dredging, dumping, or other potentially damaging activities. However, the Council can comment to state and Federal agencies about actions that may harm marine reserve areas. One example would be if an agency wanted to issue a permit for dumping dredge materials in fish habitat.

Councils also have authority to recommend fisheries management measures in National Marine Sanctuaries when a sanctuary is established under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. National Marine Sanctuaries have broad authority to establish management measures and rules within the sanctuary boundaries, but they do not have authority to regulate fishing activities. The Pacific Council and the West Coast sanctuaries work cooperatively to share relevant information and address common issues when appropriate.

For more information on the Council’s consideration of marine reserves, please contact Kerry Griffin.

Fact Sheet: Groundfish

The fish

The Council’s Pacific Coast Groundfish Fishery Management Plan (FMP) includes over 100 different species that, with a few exceptions, live on or near the bottom of the ocean. The FMP covers the following species:

  • Rockfish. All West Coast rockfish are included in the plan. This diverse group includes both commercially and recreationally important species such as widow, yellowtail, canary, blue, black, yelloweye, and vermilion rockfish, plus two species of thornyheads.
  • Flatfish. The plan covers 12 species of flatfish, including petrale sole, Dover sole, starry flounder, arrowtooth flounder, and Pacific sanddab.
  • Roundfish. The plan includes six species of roundfish: lingcod, cabezon, kelp greenling, Pacific cod, Pacific whiting (hake), and sablefish.
  • Sharks and skates: big skate, longnose skate, leopard shark, and spiny dogfish. 
  • Ecosystem component species. These species are not actively managed with annual catch limits, but they are monitored to ensure that harvest is not appreciably increasing. There are 12 ecosystem component species in the fishery management plan, including spotted ratfish, finescale codling, and all grenadier species that are endemic (unique to this area).

The fishery and gear

A spotted fish sitting on a rock
A lingcod

Many different types of gear are used to target the wide variety of groundfish managed by the Council. The dominant gears are trawl (net), longline, hook and line, and pots. The West Coast groundfish fishery is divided into five sectors:

  • Limited entry trawl. This sector is composed of fishermen with limited entry permits endorsed for trawl gear, including bottom and pelagic trawls. The limited entry program limits the number of vessels allowed to participate in this fishery. This sector uses a system of individual fishing quotas and harvest cooperatives.
  • Limited entry fixed gear. This sector includes harvesters with limited entry permits endorsed for line or pot/trap gears. This sector mainly targets sablefish, but may also target other groundfish species such as rockfish. Limited entry fixed gear permit holders with a sablefish endorsement may target sablefish during the primary season (April through October) to catch individual vessel limits of sablefish.
  • Open access. This sector of the groundfish fishery includes fishermen targeting groundfish without limited entry permits, and those who participate in non‐groundfish fisheries that incidentally catch groundfish.
  • Recreational. This sector includes anglers targeting groundfish species and others who target non‐groundfish species but who incidentally take groundfish under recreational gears and regulations. Each West Coast state manages its own recreational fisheries, but coordinates with the Council process.
  • Tribal. This sector is made up of tribal commercial fishers who have a federally recognized treaty right to fish for federally managed groundfish in their “usual and accustomed” fishing areas. These tribes, all located in Washington state, include the Quinault, Hoh, Quileute, and Makah. Formal allocations to these tribes exist for sablefish and Pacific whiting. Other groundfish species allocations for this sector are recommended in the Council biennial management process.

The management context

Groundfish are managed through a number of measures including harvest guidelines, quotas, trip and landing limits, area restrictions, seasonal closures, and gear restrictions. All sectors of the groundfish fishery are currently constrained by the need to rebuild groundfish species that are overfished and managed under rebuilding plans. Rebuilding plans specify the harvest control rules and target recovery years for these species. As of 2021, the only remaining species to rebuild is yelloweye rockfish. 

The Pacific Coast Groundfish Fishery Management Plan contains the rules for managing the groundfish fishery. It outlines the areas, species, regulations, and methods that the Council and the Federal government must follow to make changes to the fishery. The plan also creates guidelines for the biennial process of setting harvest levels. The three main processes used to regulate groundfish harvests are described below. Since these processes can take up to six months, they may be streamlined for some decisions.

The process for controversial or complex issues takes at least three Council meetings. Proposals for management measures may come from the public, from participating management agencies, from advisory groups, or from Council members. If the Council wants to pursue these proposals, it asks for other possible solutions to the problem being addressed and then directs the Groundfish Management Team (GMT), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and/or Council staff to prepare an analysis. At the next meeting when such a proposal is on the agenda, the Council reviews the analysis and chooses a range of alternatives and possibly a preliminary preferred alternative. The analysis is then made available for public review, and the Council makes a final decision at the next meeting the item is scheduled.

The biennial management process was implemented in 2003 through Amendment 17 to the groundfish FMP and is detailed in Council Operating Procedure 9. Under the biennial cycle, eligible management measures are implemented for a two‐year period and adjusted through routine inseason actions. Those management measures not eligible for implementation within the biennium can be considered for future action by the Council. Separate harvest specifications (overfishing limits [OFLs], acceptable biological catches [ABCs], and annual catch limits [ACLs]) are identified for actively managed stocks and stock complexes each year in the two‐year period. This cycle provides more time for the Council and NMFS to work on other critical groundfish issues, and more time for public comment. A multi-meeting process (typically September, November, April, and June) is used to decide biennial harvest specifications and management measures:

September (in odd years): the Council adopts final OFLs , final ABCs, and a range of ACLs for stocks where a change in the harvest control rules is contemplated. The Council provides initial guidance, including a range of new management measures for preliminary analysis.

November (in odd years): the Council chooses (for public review) preliminary preferred ACLs for stocks where a change in the harvest control rules is contemplated, and adopts a range of management measures for more detailed analysis.

April (in even years): the Council decides on final harvest levels, and chooses preliminary preferred management measures for public review.

June (in even years): the Council decides on final management measures.

The Council reviews management performance (i.e., fishing‐related mortality, including landings plus discard mortalities) and socioeconomic impacts relative to management objectives (e.g., rebuilding plans) during the two‐year management period in order to consider modifying harvest specifications and management measures in the next biennial management period. New assessment results are also considered when deciding biennial harvest specifications and management measures.

Pacific whiting are managed annually, with harvest levels set each year under the terms of the U.S.‐Canada Pacific Whiting Treaty.

After considering Council recommendations and public comments, NMFS publishes the adopted regulations, thereby putting them into effect. For non‐routine and annual management decisions, NMFS publishes a Federal Register notice and provides a public comment period before finalizing the recommendations. The Groundfish Management Team (GMT) is involved throughout the decision‐making process. The team is made up of staff from the three coastal state fishery management agencies (Washington, Oregon, and California), NMFS, and a representative for the tribes with a recognized treaty right to take federally-managed groundfish. Traditionally, the GMT monitors catch rates, recommends harvest regulations and annual limits, and analyzes the impacts of various management measures.

The GMT is composed of two representatives each from Washington, Oregon, and California fish and wildlife agencies, two representatives from the NMFS West Coast Regional office, three representatives from the NMFS Science Centers, and one tribal representative. GMT members perform analyses and make recommendations on proposed management measures, and present information to the Council, Groundfish Advisory Subpanel (GAP), and other Council advisory bodies.

The GAP advises the Council on policies and management decisions that affect the groundfish fishery and the public. The panel includes industry representatives of commercial and recreational groundfish sectors, a tribal representative, charterboat owners and operators, fishing organization representatives, processors, an environmental organization representative, and a public at‐large representative. Each major commercial and recreational gear group is represented. Meetings are held at most Council meetings. The GAP operates by consensus and through majority and minority position statements that are offered as advice to the Council.

GMT and GAP meetings are open to the public, and public comment is generally accepted during the meetings.

For more information, contact John DeVore or Todd Philllips.

Fact Sheet: The Magnuson-Stevens Act

The Magnuson‐Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) is the principal law governing marine fisheries in the United States. Before the MSA, U.S. fisheries were managed by an array of state regulations that focused mainly on fishing gear restrictions.

The MSA was adopted in 1976 under the Carter administration. It is named after the late Senators Warren Magnuson of Washington and Ted Stevens of Alaska. Its primary goals were to extend control of U.S. waters to 200 nautical miles in the ocean; to phase out foreign fishing activities; to prevent overfishing, especially by foreign fleets; to allow overfished stocks to recover; and to conserve and manage fishery resources.

Black and white photo of two senators talking
Senator Ted Stevens and Senator Warren Magnuson (D-WA) during hearings on the 200-mile fisheries legislation (later the Magnuson-Stevens Act) before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans and Atmosphere in Washington D.C. on December 6, 1973. Stevens Foundation photo.

The MSA explains the role of Regional Fishery Management Councils, which are charged with developing and implementing fishery management plans to restore depleted stocks. Council members are appointed by the Secretary of Commerce, who also evaluates and approves the councils’ fishery management plans (FMPs).

The MSA has since been amended several times, most recently in 2006. The 2006 reauthorization, under the second President Bush, was a bipartisan effort that focused on ending overfishing and requiring enforceable catch limits on all federally‐managed fish. This revision (called “Fishery Conservation and Management Amendments of 2006”) made a number of changes related to establishment of annual catch limits, function of the Scientific and Statistical Committee, the environmental review process, rebuilding provisions, limited access privilege (catch share) programs, and other areas. The reauthorization strengthened the role of science in fishery management nationwide, requiring fishery managers to establish science‐based annual catch limits (ACLs) and accountability measures for all U.S. fisheries. The MSA was reauthorized through 2010 and is now due for reauthorization again.

The MSA includes 10 national standards for management, which declare that 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.

Since 2016, both the House and Senate have drafted several bills to reauthorize the MSA, but the Act has not yet been reauthorized. Currenty, the following MSA reauthorization bills have been introduced:

What to do with the MSA?

Many people feel the MSA has worked well, and do not want to make major changes to the Act. However, the following changes have been proposed in recent reauthorization bills:

  • Exemptions to annual catch limits (for example, exemptions for short-lived species, for “ecosystem component” species, and for certain transboundary stocks)
  • Capitol construction funds for processors and others
  • Strengthening habitat protections
  • Adding provisions related to climate change adaptation and ecosystem management
  • Adding provisions to further protect forage fish
  • Limitations on certain catch share programs
  • Encouragement of cooperative research and electronic monitoring systems
  • Efforts to modernize data collection
  • Changes to how money collected from fines is used
  • Changes to certain definitions and findings
  • Changing the term “overfished” to “overfished or otherwise depleted,” or some other variant
  • Adding references to tribes and subsistence fishing
  • Allowing a rebuilding plan to end if it turns out the stock was never overfished in the first place
  • Other tweaks to rebuilding requirements
  • Requiring stock assessments for each stock managed by a Council

The MSA is complemented by other Federal and state laws, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, and 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.

The Council’s Legislative Committee tracks reauthorization bills, and the Council discusses them during the Legislative Report agenda item at Council meetings. For more information, contact Jennifer Gilden, who tracks legislative issues for the Council.

Fact Sheet: Council Meetings 101

People meeting in a hotel ballroom
Typical setup for a Council meeting

Council meetings are the heart of the Federal fisheries management process. They are where ideas develop into management decisions, and where recommendations are forwarded to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). However, Council meetings can be confusing to people who are new to the process or who only attend Council meetings occasionally.


The Pacific Fishery Management Council (also known as the Council, Pacific Council, or PFMC) recommends fishery management measures to NMFS. The Pacific Council manages fisheries for salmon, groundfish, coastal pelagic species (like sardines, anchovies, and mackerel), and highly migratory species (like tunas and sharks) in the Exclusive Economic Zone, 3-200 nautical miles off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California. The Council also works with the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) to manage halibut fisheries.

Management in a broader context

The Pacific Council is one of eight fishery management councils in the United States. The other 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 fishery 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 among Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, and regional fishery management councils.

The Council process was created in 1976 through the Act now known as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (or MSA). See our MSA fact sheet for more information.

The Council, staff, and advisory bodies

The Pacific Council has three parts: the Council members, the Council staff, and advisory bodies. The 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 and 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 U.S. Secretary of Commerce. For information on the makeup of the Council, see the Council Roster.

Council staff support the Council by providing information for management decisions, informing the public about Council activities, helping the public participate in the process, coordinating the process and meetings, creating fishery management documents, and assisting advisory groups.

The Council staff consists of an Executive Director, Deputy Director, support staff, and staff officers who focus on groundfish, salmon, coastal pelagic species, highly migratory species, habitat, ecosystem-based management, economics and social science, and communication. There are typically 16 members of the Council staff.

Advisory bodies include advisory subpanels, management teams, work groups, technical teams, the Scientific and Statistical Committee, the Enforcement Consultants, and the Habitat Committee. There are also ad hoc committees which focus on particular, timely topics, then disband. These bodies usually meet while the Council meets (and sometimes between Council meetings). Their meetings are open to the public. During the Council meeting, the advisory bodies prepare comments on relevant agenda items and provide them in written and oral form to the Council. For more information, see our “Council Advisory Bodies” fact sheet.

Fishery management plans

The fishery management process is based on fishery management plans (FMPs). An FMP is a set of management objectives and strategies for achieving them. Councils develop FMPs, amend them, and make decisions like setting harvest limits within the framework of existing FMPs. In their decision making, the Councils are required to use the best scientific information available and to meet the national standards of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. They must also comply with the other Federal laws like the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Council currently has FMPs for salmon, groundfish, coastal pelagic species, and highly migratory species, as well as an overarching Fishery Ecosystem Plan.

Council meetings

The Council meets five times a year, usually in March, April, June, September, and November. Most Council meetings take six days, with individual advisory body meetings occurring during the course of the week. All meetings are open to the public, except for a short closed Council session in which the Council deals with personnel and litigation issues. Meeting records are created for each Council meeting, and are available to the public. Meetings are usually held in large cities where there is adequate meeting space and airport connections. Advisory bodies also meet at various times between Council meetings.

Briefing books

Council staff prepares a Briefing Book before each Council meeting. The Briefing Book contains summaries, reports, and other materials for each agenda item. Public comment is available electronically. Briefing Book materials are available on the Council website (www.pcouncil.org), usually as PDF files, approximately two weeks prior to Council meetings.

Public comments are submitted electronically via the Council’s E-Portal.

Comments submitted before the Briefing Book is posted are held in a queue for review, and then posted on the same day the Briefing Book is posted to the website. Comments received after the Briefing Book has been posted will be visible immediately upon review. 

The dates for each meeting can be found on our website. If you are unable to submit public comment via the E-Portal, please contact the Council office in advance. You may mail or fax comments to the Council; a Staff Officer will manually enter them into the E-Portal to become part of the record.


All materials included in the Briefing Book, the supplemental material provided to Council members, and all reports and statements generated at Council meetings are available on a table usually located in the back of the Council meeting room or in a hall outside the meeting room. A label in the upper right-hand corner of the handouts explains where they fit in the agenda and what subject they pertain to.

Agendas and agenda items

The Council works off an agenda that is drafted at the previous Council meeting and posted on the Council’s website.  Each meeting’s agenda is approved at the start of the Council meeting.

Agenda items are set by the Council, working with Council staff. To have something placed on the agenda, talk to the Executive Director, Chair, or an individual Council member, or suggest the agenda item during an advisory body meeting or during the public comment period when the agenda is finalized. Draft agendas for the next Council meeting are usually discussed on the last day of the Council meeting. During the weeks following the meeting, the agenda is finalized by staff.

Each agenda item has several parts. First, a staff officer usually gives an overview of what to expect during the agenda item, based on the situation summary provided in the Briefing Book. This may be followed by presentations of the particular topic, by state and/or tribal reports, advisory body comments or reports, and by public comment. Finally, the Council discusses the topic and may vote on it. 

Robert’s Rules of Order

The Council meeting process follows “Robert’s Rules of Order,” rules for parliamentary procedure which were developed in 1876.  This ensures that discussions run smoothly, and that the process of making motions is fair and clear. A “parliamentarian” sits next to the Council Chair to ensure Robert’s Rules are followed.


During discussion, voting Council members may make a motion to take action. A Council member must second the motion before the Council votes on it. (Note: not all Council members are voting members. Representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, Coast Guard, State Department, and Alaska do not vote.) Sometimes Council members will make a “friendly amendment” to a motion. A friendly amendment is a suggestion for a minor change that does not alter the overall intent of the motion.

All Council meetings and advisory body meetings are open to the public, except for a closed session to deal with personnel matters.


The Secretariat

The “Secretariat” is the office where reports are processed for Council meetings. It is usually located near the Council chamber. The purpose of the Secretariat is to receive reports from advisory bodies and Council staff to be formally entered into the administrative record, formatted, uploaded for distribution to the website, copied, and handed out to the Council during their proceedings. The Secretariat provides computers for advisory body members and staff to use in writing their reports, and copiers to produce copies of the reports for use by the Council and advisory bodies. 

Oral public comment 

Oral public comment is invited for nearly every item on the Council’s agenda (exceptions are for “closed session,” when the Council deals with committee appointments, legal matters, and other administrative issues, approval of the agenda and approval of the meeting record). For in-person meetings, you can sign up to give public comment any time before the public comment period for the agenda item begins. Go to the staffed desk at the entrance of the Council room and sign up for public comment giving your name, affiliation, and the agenda item you wish to comment on. When your name is called, go to the table that sits before the Council, introduce yourself, and give your testimony. Because of time constraints, public comment is limited to five minutes for individuals and ten minutes for representatives of groups. For more tips, see the backgrounders titled “Council Testimony” and “Getting Involved.”

Public comment during webinars

As with in-person meetings, oral public comment is welcome during webinars. 

As with our in-person meetings, we will be accepting oral public comment for each agenda Item. You will still need to sign up for an opportunity to speak, and oral comments will only be accepted before Council action on each agenda item. We have updated our E-Portal to allow signing up for oral testimony. Please visit the E-Portal, select the agenda Item you wish to comment on, enter your name, affiliation, email address and phone number, then be prepared to speak when called upon during public comment.

For more tips, see the backgrounders titled “Council Testimony” and “Getting Involved.”