With the worldwide demand for food production steadily increasing, issues associated with fish and fisheries are considered to be of vital importance in shaping our future, and thus are a resource that must be carefully managed. Much of this burden of Federal management in the United States falls on the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the fisheries division of NOAA (because it is the fisheries division of NOAA, the agency is also called NOAA Fisheries).

The NMFS Mission

NMFS, which is involved in a very broad range of fisheries/management issues breaks its strategic plan into three main foci. The organization is responsible for rebuilding and maintaining sustainable fisheries, recovering protected species, and protecting and maintaining ecosystem health.

The latter two of these goals both have similar aims. The second goal concerns the agency with the protection and recovery of plant and animal species, while the third one focuses on the habitats and ecosystems that support these species. Interestingly enough, the first of the three goals has a focus that some might argue is contrary to those of the other two goals: promoting the harvest of aquatic wildlife. According to Galen Tromble, who manages the NMFS Sustainable Fisheries division for the agency’s Alaska region, this juxtaposition sometimes creates conflict within the agency, and between the different resource user groups who are affected by NMFS. “I think it is possible to find a balance between those two,” Tromble said. “It’s not easy to do. Success is often having both sides a little bit mad at us.”

The Official Mission Statement

Cut-and-pasted from: www.nmfs.noaa.gov

Rebuilding and maintaining sustainable fisheries

More than one-fifth of the world's most productive marine waters lies within US territorial waters where in 1996, commercial fishermen brought to port 9.6 billion pound of fish and shellfish, worth $3.5 billion. In addition, an estimated 17 million people enjoy marine recreational fishing, landing almost 300 million pounds of fish each year. Many more fish are caught and released as part of a nationwide angler conservation program.

These vast fishery resources and their essential habitats can be rapidly destroyed if harvest is not carefully controlled or their important habitat goes unprotected. But with proper management, healthy stocks can be maintained, and diminished fish populations can be restored to bring greater wealth to the nation's coastal communities. Fisheries that are sustainable over the long term allow United States citizens to reap the greatest economic and social benefit, including a continuing supply of high-quality seafood, and recreational enjoyment.

Sound scientific research is the basis for sustainable fisheries. To help ensure productive future harvests, NOAA Fisheries scientists study the life history, stock, size, and ecology of economically important fisheries managers to set annual quotas, or the amount of fish that can be harvested each year.

Recovering Protected Species

Many marine animals protected by federal law, such as whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and many stocks of salmon, are affected by fisheries and other human activities, as well as by environmental change. NOAA Fisheries seeks to reduce the impacts of these activities on protected species while ensuring the viability of valuable fisheries. In fact, NOAA Fisheries is a major force in protecting marine species around the globe.

Maintaining Ecosystem Health

Coastal habitats, such as estuaries and reefs, provide food and shelter for marine and anadromous fish and shellfish during important stages of their life cycles. NOAA Fisheries monitors threats to these fragile ecosystems by monitoring development, water and sediment contamination, water diversion for industrial agriculture, sedimentation, and dredging and filling activities. The agency is a major force in maintaining the health of marine ecosystems by leading research to restore and create fish habitat, reviewing coastal development and water projects that may alter or destroy habitat, and recommending measures to offset development and use impacts.

Historical Background

Although the National Marine Fisheries Service (as it is known today) was created with the inception of NOAA in 1970, the agency had in fact existed – under several different names and government divisions – for almost a century prior to that date.

1871: Congress creates US Commission of Fish and Fisheries, headed by Spencer F. Baird. Duties of the agency include the study of an apparent decline of Great Lakes and New England fish populations.

1872: Congress gives Fish Commission $15,000 to study and promote fish culturing. Baird sends Livingston Stone (a fish culturist) to California in search of Chinook salmon eggs for use in culturing. Stone constructs Federal fish culture station.

1880: Baird receives gold medal in International Exhibition for work on fish culturing.

1882: Fish Commission vessel Albatross launched.

1885: Commission establishes America’s first marine science station in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

1888: Albatross deployed to conduct research on Pacific coast.

1889: Afognak Island designated as “Forest and Fish Cultural Reserve”; helps to increase agency’s focus on environmental concerns.

1893: Commission begins fur seal research program.

1903: US Commission of Fish and Fisheries renamed US Bureau of Fisheries (BOF) and placed under US Department of Commerce and Labor.

1905: BOF establishes first Federal fish hatchery in Yes Bay, Alaska.

1908: Alaska operating division added.

1914-1918: World War I. Increase in fish production demanded for use as food.

1930: Division of Law Enforcement added to BOF.

1945: International fishing near US waters increases dramatically; President Harry Truman asserts jurisdiction over the “high seas contiguous to the coasts of the United States and its territories.”

1947: Pacific Oceanic Fishery Investigations unit created at Honolulu, Hawaii.

1951: Atlantic fishery research sparks birth of Atlantic tuna industry.

1956: Fish and Wildlife Act; Fish and Wildlife Service created, BOF becomes Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (BCF). BCF mission no longer includes sport fishing-related activities.

1959: Alaska gains statehood, BCF discontinues management of Alaskan fisheries.

1960s: Problems created by foreign factory trawlers fishing near US waters. Restoration efforts begin on Columbia River.

1970: BCF becomes National Marine Fisheries Service, and is placed under the newly-created NOAA a division of the Department of Commerce. New mission includes sport fishing study/conservation.

1970s: NMFS initiates Marine Resources Monitoring Assessment and Prediction program to collect data for fisheries management.

1976: Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act passed by Congress; bill creates eight regional Fishery Management Councils.

1991: NMFS publishes “Our Living Oceans,” a landmark assessment of marine population biology within US waters.

1996: Congress passes Sustainable Fisheries Act, an amended version of the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The new bill requires NMFS to provide for “essential fish habitat.”

Current Issues

Current issues for the National Marine Fisheries Service are diverse and varied, as its services have continued to expand over the years. However, many of the recent NMFS-related issues concern fisheries management and species management and protection.

Endangered Species

One of the tasks in which the NMFS has been heavily involved in recent years concerns its duties in administering the Endangered Species Act. The bill, which was passed by Congress in 1973, grants special protections to plant and animal species on the endangered species list - those in danger of extinction in substantial portions of their habitat areas. The bill also provided for those species at risk of becoming endangered to be listed as “threatened.” Under the terms of the Endangered Species Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service was given jurisdiction for the listing of most marine plant/animal species as endangered or threatened (the Fish and Wildlife Service has jurisdiction over the listing of non-marine species). There are currently 19 endangered species and 12 threatened species over which NMFS has management.


Aquaculture (fish farming) is also an issue that has taken on a new prominence for the NMFS in recent years. Beginning with the National Aquaculture Act of 1980, NMFS and NOAA have played an active role in aquacultural research, development, and promotion. According to NMFS, worldwide non-domestic seafood production will not always be sufficient to meet demands without excessive fishing. As a result, the agency believes that aquaculture can provide a needed supplement to harvests from the fisheries. NMFS is also responsible for ensuring that aquacultural procedures are environmentally sound; and there have in fact been a number of moratoriums on US-based aquacultural practices that have caused ecological concern. Unfortunately, there are growing concerns relating the large number of to British Columbian net-pen fish farms in which Atlantic salmon are raised. Large numbers of these non-indigenous fish have escaped captivity, and are increasingly appearing in US waters; causing some to fear the potential for disease or parasites to be introduced into the Pacific salmon stocks. As of yet, however, the NMFS has not taken a direct stand on the Canadian Aquacultural issue.

The “Doughnut Hole

A third issue of substantial importance relates to the management and regulation associated with the “doughnut hole” – an area of international waters in the Bering Sea that is located in between US waters and Russian waters. Because the area is international, many it is popular among foreign-flagged fishing vessels, which often results in the over-exploitation of Bering Sea resources. This was an issue of contention until recently, when the six nations with major interests in the area – the US, Russia, China, South Korea, Poland, and Japan – agreed to a moratorium on fishing activities within the area, to allow fish populations to rebound. As a result of this, the law enforcement division of NMFS devotes a large portion of its resources to patrolling doughnut hole and the Russo-American boundary in the Bering Sea.