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The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) regulates commercial and recreational ocean fishing, managing marine life and their habitats in the waters 3 to 200 nautical miles from a U.S. shore (an area known in maritime law as an “exclusive economic zone,” where countries have enhanced resource-exploitation rights).

Ideally, the agency attempts to promote the multi-billion-dollar fishing industry through sensible stewardship. This entails carefully balancing the competing interests of economics and conservation. Much of the agency’s energy is devoted to propping up dwindling catches due to pollution or overfishing, a persistent problem worldwide that’s especially acute for countries harvesting from the Atlantic Ocean. It also conducts research and coordinates conservation efforts with local authorities.
The NMFS is an office in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is part of the Department of Commerce. It’s often referred to as “NOAA Fisheries.”

The first NMFS predecessor was the United States Commission on Fish and Fisheries, established in 1871. Legislators charged the agency with studying and managing live ocean resources, administratively tying it to the Smithsonian Institution. There was already some awareness about depleted fish stocks in the waters off the Atlantic Seaboard; helping to restore them became a major goal of each of the Fish Commission’s successors.


In 1888, Congress amended the original Fish Commission act, separating it from the Smithsonian Institution. The commission remained an independent federal agency until 1903, when it was placed in the new Department of Commerce and Labor. The renamed Bureau of Fisheries also assumed management responsibilities over fisheries in the Alaskan territory.
A 1913 act of Congress split the Department of Commerce and Labor in two, with the Bureau of Fisheries remaining in the Department of Commerce until 1939, when it was transferred to the Department of the Interior. One year later, the Bureau of Fisheries merged with the Bureau of Biological Survey to create the Fish and Wildlife Service. The new service remained in the Interior Department.
In 1956, the Fish and Wildlife Service was renamed the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The name change was more than cosmetic: The new service contained two distinct agencies—the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries and the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, which focused more on recreational fishing.
Fourteen years later, President Richard Nixon reorganized the government again, transferring almost all functions associated with the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries to the Department of Commerce. The bureau was renamed the National Marine Fisheries Service and was made a division of the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The NMFS draws its authority for managing marine fish stocks from the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, signed into law in 1976 and amended 20 years later. The original act created eight regional management councils to oversee fisheries. The 1996 amendment primarily sought new ways of replenishing depleted fish stocks, which have been falling for decades. In 2006, President George W. Bush sought to update the act as part of his administration’s Ocean Action Plan. On Jan. 12, 2007, he signed into law the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006.
Both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act are the legal underpinnings of the service’s role in conserving ocean wildlife. 
For more information, see:

Fisheries Historical Page

( Northeast Fisheries Science Center)


What it Does  

The National Marine Fisheries Service has three operational arms reporting to the NMFS assistant administrator: regulatory programs, administration and law enforcement, and research. There are also various councils, committees and an office dedicated to international fishing issues.
Regulatory Programs
The regulatory arm is headed by the deputy assistant administrator for regulatory programs. Underneath the administrator are six regional offices for implementing policy, coordinating programs and dispersing funds to local, state and regional partners:
The Office of Sustainable Fisheries has a unit for the day-to-day, administrative tasks of regulating, and a unit for working with other federal agencies. According to the NMFS Web site, it also oversees and supports the regional fishery management councils (see Regional Fishery Management Councils below). The office makes sure council appointments follow regulations, it processes appointment paperwork, it trains new council members and it meets twice a year with the Council Coordination Committee.
The Office of Protected Resources promulgates regulations to protect certain types of sea life and habitats under the Marine Mammal Protection and Endangered Species acts. It also coordinates its activities with the regional offices, the science centers and other organizations.
The Office of Habitat Conservation works with private interests, academia and other government institutions to provide healthy habitats for fisheries and protected species.
Administration and Law Enforcement
The administrative and law enforcement arm of the NMFS is headed by the deputy assistant administrator for operations, who has oversight of six divisions.
The Office for Law Enforcement enforces some 37 conservation statutes and a handful of treaties. It contains six geographic divisions: Northeast, Southeast, Alaska, Northwest, Southwest and Pacific Islands.
According to the NMFS Web site, the Office of Policy “administers and monitors” the Policy Directives System, which “translates the ideas, goals or principles contained in the NMFS mission, vision and strategic plan into action-related directives.”
The Office of Management and Budget performs administrative, financial and human-resources functions for the NMFS.
The Office of the Chief Information Office provides support for information technologies, such as agency-wide Internet access and computer programs.
The Seafood Inspection Program ensures compliance with food-safety regulations at all stages of seafood harvesting, processing and sales.
The Program Office for EEO and Diversity ensures NMFS compliance with federal equal-employment regulations.
The NMFS research arm is headed by the director of scientific programs and chief science advisor. The director has ultimate authority over six regional centers that provide relevant scientific data to policy makers and the Office of Science and Technology, which vets research and produces statistics. The six regional centers are:
Regional Fishery Management Councils
The Magnuson-Stevens Act of 1976 established eight regional fishery management councils. Each council recommends measures for the exclusive economic zone in their geographical area, with the NMFS retaining final say over implementation. The commerce secretary appoints council members. The eight regions are:
The 2006 amendment to the Magnuson-Stevens Act also established a Council Coordination Committee made up of the chairs, vice chairs and executive directors of the regional councils, in order to debate issues affecting them all.
Three commissions represent state interests in developing fishery regulations. They are the Gulf States, the Pacific States and the Atlantic States fisheries commissions.
Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee
The Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee, with members representing a spectrum of interests, advises the secretary of commerce.
Office of International Affairs
The NMFS Office of International Affairs coordinates policy with other countries, advocates for U.S. interests and serves as a spokesperson on global issues. The office also participates in free-trade negotiations.
NOAA Strategic Planning Office, with information on the NMFS’ long-term planning
Organization Chart, from the NMFS Web site
FishWatch, an NMFS seafood guide
NOAA Aquaculture Program, from the NOAA Web site
Bycatch, from the NMFS Web site
Grants, from the NMFS Web site
Limited Access Privilege Program, from the NMFS Web site
Permits, from the NMFS Web site

Species Information

, from the NMFS Web site


Where Does the Money Go  
Stakeholders include:
  • the NOAA and other federal agencies
  • local, state and regional agencies that conserve or otherwise manage living sea resources
  • academia
  • the fishing industry
  • coastal states
  • international science and fishery-management organizations
  • conservation groups
  • taxpayers



Bush’s Ocean Action Plan

Conservationists hailed President Bush’s Ocean Action Plan, which expanded regulatory powers, as a good step toward addressing environmental concerns in coastal waters. However, some environmental groups expressed concern over the administration’s commitment to funding the plan’s objectives.
The Collapse of Fish Populations

In Alaska, fishing industry drives marine conservation: An interview with Dave Benton of the Marine Conservation Alliance

(by Rhett A. Butler,


Suggested Reforms  

In 2007, President Bush signed into law an amendment to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, expanding the tools the NMFS uses to regulate fishing (see History).


Congressional Oversight  
Former Directors  

chip mcknight - 6/11/2012 9:30:14 AM              
i just came across this video online and wondering if this is what our swordfish fishery has come to? a disgussting harvest of small swords that i highly doubt will be sold to the commercial meat market. probably for bait!

GH - 5/25/2012 8:44:46 AM              
i am a recreational fisherman in texas. i fish almost every time offshoar. i do not charter a boat or own a charter or head boat. there for i am not under the jurisdiction of the feds, because i am not enguaged in any comerce. i simply do not even pay attention to what fedral regulations say. i do however obide by texas stae laws. if you look at the laws in title 50 cfr,they do have laws that regulate recreational fishing, but only if you are enguaged in commerce. example, if you charter a boat, or own a charter or head boat. that is the only way they can regulate you!!! i got stopped 3 years ago by the feds in federal waters in september 2009. i had 8 red snapper on board. there were two of us so we had our legal limit of snapper for texas. they tried to take our fish. i told them that they had no juisdiction over me because i was not engauged in any commerce. texas parks and wildlife department was also with them, and neither did they do anything to me. all they said was that they will investigate and if they were going to do anything, that they would have to sue me in a civil court. to this day, i have heard nothing from them.

Bob Ofenloch - 5/6/2012 8:25:20 AM              
your recent ruling reducing the keeper size of cod fish from 24" to 19" was a real "winner". the fish from 19" to 23.99" were returned so that most of them matured and increased the species. your ruling will decrease the numbers of cod fish available in the future, and perhaps ruin the cod fishing industry entirely. that's what happens when bureaucrats get involved. nice move folks!!! not!!! instead of killing off a species, why don't you do something about the rulings on striped bass in nc waters that wastes tons of fish. more smart moves by bureaucrats.

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Table of Contents

Founded: 1970 (with predecessors dating back to 1871)
Annual Budget: $796 million (2008)

National Marine Fisheries Service
Schwaab, Eric
Assistant Administrator

Eric C. Schwaab was appointed in February 2010 to run the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the Department of Commerce. In this capacity he oversees the management and conservation of marine fisheries and the protection of marine mammals, sea turtles and coastal fisheries habitat within the United States exclusive economic zone.

Schwaab grew up in West Baltimore and then farther west in Carroll County, Maryland. He received his undergraduate degree in biology from McDaniel College and a master’s degree in environmental planning from Towson University.
He has spent the majority of his 25-year career in natural resource management working for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, where he began as a natural resources police law enforcement officer in 1983. In time he managed Deep Creek Lake State Park, served in waterfront and resource management positions with the State Forest and Park Service, and moved up to be director of the Maryland Forest Service; director of the Maryland Forest, Wildlife and Heritage Service; and director of the Maryland Fisheries Service.
In 2003, Schwaab was fired after losing a fight over crabbing restrictions with Republican governor Robert Ehrlich, Jr., who reduced restrictions on behalf of seafood processors. Schwaab had been a leader in the battle save the blue crab population of the Chesapeake Bay.
Schwaab then moved to Washington, D.C. to serve as resource director for the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. When Ehrlich lost his bid for reelection in 2006, Schwaab returned to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources as deputy secretary, making him the No. 2 for the agency.
He served as a member of the U.S. Department of Commerce Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee from 2005-2010.
Balsiger, James
Previous Acting Assistant Administrator
James Balsiger has a Bachelor of Science degree in forestry from Michigan Technological University, a Master of Science degree in forest silviculture from Purdue University and a doctorate in quantitative ecology and natural resource management from the University of Washington.
Balsiger helped lead a fish stock assessment program and served as regional science and research director at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle from 1977 to 1991. Between 1991 and 1995, he worked as the center’s deputy director, assuming the full-fledged directorship in 1996.
Starting in 2000, Balsiger served for eight years as administrator of the NMFS’ Alaska region. In February 2008 he was tapped to become the service’s acting director. His new post forced him to move from Juneau, Alaska, to Silver Spring, Md. According to his official biography, Balsiger has authored or co-authored some 33 publications.