Essential Fish Habitat

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The Magnuson-Stevens Act, the primary law in the United States for managing fisheries in federal waters, was amended in 1996 to require the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to protect habitat that are necessary for the spawning, feeding and growth of fishery species. NMFS works with regional Fishery Management Councils and states to identify Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) for each federally managed fish species and then develop conservation measures to protect and enhance these habitats. The Act requires the NMFS and regional Fishery Management Councils to minimize adverse impacts to EFH caused by fishing activities.

History and Goals

The Magnuson-Stevens Act of 1976 (Act) marked a new approach to the conservation and management of the country’s offshore fishery. The act granted legislative authority for fisheries regulation to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), an agency within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within the United States Department of Commerce. The NMFS jurisdictional area is between three miles to 200 miles offshore. The agency had authority to establish eight regional fishery management councils. These councils produce Fishery Management Plans to determine the proper management and harvest of fish and shellfish resources within federal waters.

Amidst continued declines in fish stocks, the Act was amended in 1996 to increase protection of habitat essential to the life cycle of fishery species. Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) is defined as “those waters and substrate necessary to fish for spawning, breeding, feeding, or growth to maturity.” EFH may consist of both the water column and the bottom habitat of a particular area. Several sources of data are used to delineate areas of EFH for federally managed species.

Governance Framework of the Program

Responsibilities of the NMFS under the Magnuson-Stevens Act include assessing the status of fish stocks, ensuring compliance with fisheries regulations and reducing wasteful fishing practices. NMFS has six regional offices that work with states, the eight regional Fishery Management Councils (FMCs) and three interstate fisheries management commissions to accomplish its goals.

Identification of Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) The national and state authorities on fishery identify essential fish habitats for each managed species using the best available science. This process engages fishermen and the public in identifying specific areas and the habitat features within them that provide essential functions to a particular species for each of its life stages. Those areas designated as EFH for each species are identified in fishery management plans.

Once EFH is identified for each species, Councils must assess the fishing practices in their regions to determine if the resulting impacts on habitat are more than minimal. If impacts exist, then the Councils must take steps to minimize these impacts.

Reducing Impacts Councils can make use of many measures to reduce impacts on EFH. Common tools include restricting the use of certain fishing gears, modifying gear technology, or reducing the time and frequency of fishing in certain habitats.

Every Federal Agency that plans to fund or conduct an activity in an EFH that could have an impact on the quantity or quality of habitat must work with NMFS to identify impacts. Based on such findings, NMFS provides recommendations for conserving the habitat and reducing the impact of that action.

The National Fish Habitat Action Plan was established in support of the EFH program. It is a cooperative effort between Federal, state, and private groups to integrate fish habitat conservation efforts through regional fish habitat partnerships. These partnerships provide a strategic framework for community-level programs and match funding to local restoration activities.


In 2000, the US General Accounting Office reported that the NMFS identified essential fish habitat and developed a consultation process for addressing potential adverse impacts. At that time, the resulting EFH maps covered almost the entire US coastline.

A weakness of the EFH program is that NMFS can only make recommendations to federal agencies on how they can minimize their impacts. Another is that NMFS has no authority over the private sector.

See Also

Internal Links

External Links

Further Reading


The main authors of this article are Olsen, Stephen Bloye and Ricci, Glenn
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Olsen, Stephen Bloye; Ricci, Glenn; (2020): Essential Fish Habitat. Available from [accessed on 18-05-2024]