For over two centuries, coastal and marine fishery resources have been an important component of our nation’s heritage, supporting thriving fishing communities and enriching recreational opportunities, as well as providing seafood that is consumed within the U.S. and exported abroad. Recognizing the importance of coastal and marine fisheries to their constituents and the inherent migratory nature of fish species, the 15 Atlantic coastal states came together in the early 1940s to form the Commission. Its purpose is to serve as a deliberative forum for the states to discuss fisheries management issues and challenges, and develop interstate fishery management plans for the conservation of shared fishery resources. Its mission is to promote the better utilization of the fisheries, marine, shell and diadromous, of the Atlantic seaboard through the development of cohesive fishery management plans along the Atlantic coast, rather than disparate state-specific plans for the same species.
Types of Management Tools
The Commission uses two main types of controls to limit catch of the species it manages. Input controls limit the capacity of and effort in the fishery. These controls include fishing seasons, days out, and the number and size of fishing vessels in the fishery. For example, the measures managing the Atlantic herring fishery include days out of the fishery specifications for the inshore Gulf of Maine that allow permitted vessels to land herring four consecutive days a week from June 1 – September 30.
Output controls limit the amount of fish caught by the fishery. This includes measures such as total allowable catch (TAC) and bag limits. For example, the summer flounder commercial fishery is managed by an annual catch limit (ACL). The coastwide ACL is allocated to each state. When the state reaches its quota the fishery is closed in that state, ensuring the coastwide ACL is not exceeded.
More than 75 years have passed since the Commission’s creation. Congress has since passed legislation to further support the states’ efforts to sustainably manage Atlantic coastal fishery resources. Today, the Commission manages 27 shellfish, diadromous and marine species. Some of these species are managed solely by the Commission and the states, such as striped bass, menhaden, American lobster and eel, while other species, such as Atlantic herring, summer flounder, and coastal sharks, are cooperatively managed by the Commission, NOAA Fisheries and the East Coast Regional Fishery Management Councils.
Management strategies are science-based and tailored to be species-specific; for example, scientists look at a variety of factors when giving advice to managers, including the size of the fish stock, how fast it reproduces, how it interacts with other species, and whether or not it needs to be rebuilt or receive additional protection. Stock assessments are conducted to evaluate the health of the fish stocks and the capacity for harvest, and the information is used to determine appropriate measures for the fishery. (For more information on the science behind fisheries management, including data sources and stock assessments, see Fisheries Science 101.) To limit harvest to sustainable levels, managers employ a variety of management measures, including controlling the number and size of fish that are caught, the gears that may be used, and the areas and seasons that are open to fishing.
This webpage is intended to guide you through the Commission’s fisheries management process, including managed species, the key players in the process, FMP and addenda development and implementation, state/federal cooperation, and how the fishing and interested public can become involved in our decision-making process.
Fisheries Management Strives to Balance Objectives
The Atlantic states recognize that their marine fish populations are rich resources, producing high economic yield, supporting recreational fishing opportunities, creating jobs, and providing seafood that is consumed within the U.S. and exported on a global scale. These fish species are also essential to their marine ecosystems, acting as predators and prey, and helping to shape their habitats. The science-driven, interstate management system in place is a way to balance these short- and long-term economic and environmental considerations.
The main objective of fisheries management is to allow enough harvest to sustain and build the fishing and seafood industries while protecting the productivity and sustainability of the marine ecosystems. In order to meet this overarching goal, the Commission strives to meet seven main objectives, contained within the Commission’s ASMFC Five-Year Strategic Plan, which is reviewed and updated every five years. Four of those objectives directly pertain to fisheries management and ensuring fisheries sustainability:
Objective 1 – Rebuild, maintain, fairly allocate, and promote Atlantic coastal fisheries.
Objective 2 – Provide the scientific foundation for and conduct stock assessments to support informed management actions.
Objective 3 – Promote compliance with fishery management plans to ensure sustainable use of Atlantic coast fisheries.
Objective 4 – Protect and enhance fish habitat and ecosystem health through partnerships and education.
The bulk of the Commission’s fisheries decision-making occurs through the Interstate Fisheries Management Program (ISFMP), where species management boards determine management strategies that the states implement through fishing regulations. The ISFMP Policy Board is responsible for the overall administration and management of the Commission's fishery management programs and provides direct oversight to the individual species management boards. The Program promotes the conservation of Atlantic coastal fishery resources, is based on the use of sound science, and provides adequate opportunity for public participation.
The accompanying graphic shows the flow of decision-making, with the Commission being the highest level, and advisory panels, technical committees, plan development and review teams providing support to the species management boards and sections.
Boards and Committees
Interstate Fisheries Management Program (ISFMP) Policy Board: The ISFMP Policy Board provides primary oversight of the Commission’s fisheries management process. It monitors species stock performance, establishes overarching policies to guide decision-making, considers appeals made by the states regarding management actions, and receives reports from various supporting committees. The Board is comprised of the Commissioners from the fifteen member states and representatives from the District of Columbia (DC), the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC), NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The Board also includes one non-voting member of the Commission’s Law Enforcement Committee.
Species Management Boards and Sections: These species-specific management boards are composed of Commissioners from the states and jurisdictions with a declared interest in the species’ management program, as well as representatives from NOAA Fisheries and USFWS, and in some cases the Regional Fishery Management Councils. Each year, the states, jurisdictions and federal partners identify (declare) the species boards that they will serve on as voting members. This declaration is based on a number of factors, including the availability of the species in that state’s or jurisdiction’s waters, the existence of directed fisheries for the species in question, and an interest in a species’ conservation and management. For each state, there are three Commissioners who participate on the species board: 1) the head of the state’s marine fisheries department; 2) a member of the state legislature; and 3) a governor’s appointee who has knowledge and interest in the fishery. As an example, the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board is comprised of 40 Commissioners, which include three representatives each from the states of Maine through North Carolina, and a single representative from the District of Columbia, the PRFC, NOAA Fisheries, and USFWS. There are two species for which there is a management section instead of a board: Atlantic herring and northern shrimp. These sections operate in the same way as the management boards, but do not contain representatives from the federal agencies.
Management boards/sections consider and approve the development and implementation of fishery management plans (FMPs), including the integration of scientific information, proposed management measures, enforcement, considerations for habitat conservation and the management of protected species/fishery interactions. They establish and oversee the activities of their respective technical committees, stock assessment subcommittees, advisory panels, plan development teams, and plan review teams.
Technical Committees & Stock Assessment Subcommittees: Species technical committees are comprised of representatives from each state, jurisdiction, and federal agency with a declared interest in the fishery, and may also include representatives from Regional Fishery Management Councils, the Commission, academia, or other specialized personnel with an interest in the fishery. Technical committees are responsible for providing the species management boards and sections with the best scientific information available for guidance in the management process. Stock assessment subcommittees are working groups of the technical committees and, as such, are comprised of a subset of the technical committee, along with other fisheries experts – all of whom have stock assessment expertise. The primary role of the stock assessment subcommittee is to conduct benchmark assessments and stock assessment updates.
Advisory Panels: Advisory panel members are citizens who represent a cross-section of commercial and recreational fishing interests, and other stakeholders who are concerned about fisheries conservation and management. The advisory panel provides the management board with advice concerning species management activities.
Plan Development Teams: Plan development teams are comprised of personnel from state and federal agencies with scientific and management ability, knowledge of a species and its habitat, and an interest in the management of species under the jurisdiction of the relevant board. They may also include personnel from Regional Fishery Management Councils, the Commission, academia, and other sectors as appropriate. The species plan development team is responsible for preparing all documentation necessary in the development of an FMP, amendment, or addendum.
Plan Review Teams: Plan review teams are composed of members knowledgeable about the scientific data, stock and fishery condition, and fishery management issues. Once a management program is adopted by a species management board, the plan review team is responsible for providing annual advice concerning implementation of the management program.
ISFMP staff play an important role by helping to coordinate the activities of all the above committees. A list of staff and their respective species responsibilities can be found here. Board and committee membership lists can be found here.
With the exception of some Atlantic Herring or Northern Shrimp Section meetings, species management boards generally meet during one or more of the Commission’s quarterly meetings (Winter, Spring, Summer, Annual). Three of the quarterly meetings are held in Northern Virginia, while the Annual Meeting location rotates among the 15 Atlantic states. All of our quarterly meetings are broadcast via live-streaming, and the public is also welcome to attend the meetings in person. For more information on our quarterly meetings, go here.
When making fishery management decisions, species management boards/sections follow an established voting process, using a modified version of Robert’s Rules of Order. In general, decisions are made using a simple majority vote. However, a two-thirds vote of all voting members (entire membership) is required to amend or rescind any final actions. Final actions include setting fishery specifications (including but not limited to quotas, trip limits, possession limits, size limits, season, area closures, gear requirements), allocation, final approval of FMPs/amendments/addenda, emergency actions, conservation equivalency plans, and noncompliance recommendations. Additionally, roll call votes are required for all final actions.
The voting process follows these steps:
Ensure a quorum or majority of states with a declared interest in the fishery are present. A state can be represented by one or more of its Commissioners.
A Commissioner makes a motion before the board/section for group approval.
There is a period of discussion on the motion between the board/section members. Other Commissioners may also offer up amendments to the motion to change the wording or meaning to best match the group’s goal.
The present states, jurisdictions, and federal agencies vote on the motion. Each state and federal agency gets one vote, regardless of the number of people they have present or their allocation of the resource, and may vote in favor of the motion, against it, abstain from voting, or have a null vote. This means that the three Commissioners representing a state must come to a collective decision on how to vote on an issue.
The voting process remains the same if voting occurs over webinar, conference call, or through email.
An FMP is the primary management document for a species. It contains background information on the species, including its biology, habitat, and fisheries, and outlines the management program for the species. This includes all measures that must be implemented by the states, as well as monitoring and compliance standards, and research needs.
If significant changes to an FMP are needed, an Amendment is developed to replace the FMP as the primary management document for the species. An amendment contains the same level of background information as an FMP and describes an updated management program for the species that is designed to address gaps in management, or changing stock or fishery needs.
Most FMPs specify that certain issues can be altered through adaptive management. If one of these issues needs to be addressed, an Addendum is developed. These documents serve as add-ons to the existing species FMP or amendment, and while most address updates to management measures, they can also be technical or habitat-focused. Addenda are equivalent to the Frameworks developed by the regional management councils and only take 3-6 months to develop, allowing Boards/Sections to quickly respond to changes in the fishery or resource.
The Commission is able to implement fisheries management quickly relative to federal agencies, an important asset when reacting to a changing fishery/resource or adjusting measures and filling gaps in management. It usually takes between eight and 18 months to finalize an FMP or amendment, while it can take less than six months to finalize an addendum.
Still, the Commission’s process is involved and thorough, informed by the best available scientific information and incorporating input from the public. It is very important that we are transparent in our process, and we encourage public participation and feedback along the way.
The decision-making process is shown in the accompanying flowchart.
Public feedback is valuable to our species management boards, informing their decisions on which of the proposed options to choose as final management measures. The public is encouraged to participate and provide input on potential measures during the development of every FMP, amendment, and addendum. After draft management documents are approved by a Board, a mandatory public comment period begins. All ASMFC documents that are available for public comment can be found here, along with information on how to submit written comments by mail, email, or fax. Public hearings are conducted by the states to provide opportunities for people to seek information about the proposed measures, and to speak for or against certain options.
The public comment period for addenda lasts at least 30 days and may include public hearings. FMPs and amendments have longer public comment periods. The document becomes available for comment 30 days prior to the first scheduled public hearing, and remains open for 14 days following the last public hearing.
Under certain circumstances, public comment can also be given verbally at Board meetings. For issues that are not on the agenda, there is an opportunity to bring matters of concern to the Board’s attention at the start of each Board meeting. For topics that are on the agenda, but have not gone out for public comment, Board Chairs will provide limited opportunity for comment, taking into account the time allotted on the agenda for the topic. For agenda action items that have already gone out for public comment, the Board Chair has the discretion to decide what public comment to allow.
The public can also reach out to their state Commissioners to discuss issues at any time. (A list of Commissioners by state can be found here.) Anyone who wishes to be more involved can also apply to join a species Advisory Panel through their state delegation. These panels represent the wide group of interests, including commercial and recreational fishermen, environmental groups, and other fields. To find out more about the Advisory Panel process and how to apply, contact us at email@example.com.
What to Expect at a Public Hearing
When a species management document, such as a draft FMP or Amendment, goes out for public comment, public hearings are conducted in the states/jurisdictions that request them. These meetings serve as a way for fishermen, environmental groups, and others with an interest in the fishery to learn more about the proposed changes and offer their input on what the best options are to solve the issues. The Commission and the state fishery agencies will notify the public of where and when the hearings will be held.
If the management document being discussed is either an FMP or an Amendment, there will be two series of public hearings. The first round of public hearings is on the Public Information Document, which provides an opportunity for the public to identify major issues and alternatives related to the management of the species. The second round of public hearings is on the Draft FMP or Amendment, and asks the public for specific feedback on proposed management alternatives. If an Addendum is being developed, there will only be one set of public hearings to gather input on the specific options contained within the draft document.
At a public hearing, a brief presentation is given on issues being addressed in the management document, the various new management options and how each option will impact the state in which the hearing is being held. After the presentation, attendees can provide written or oral comments on the proposed options. All the comments, both written and spoken, will be summarized by the Coordinator and presented to the Commissioners at the next Board meeting to help them decide what measures to choose.
Attendance is taken at each hearing and the hearings are recorded so that Commission staff can review the recording for additional information, if needed at a later date.
Conservation equivalency gives states/jurisdictions the flexibility to develop alternate regulations that address specific state or regional differences while still achieving the conservation objectives of required management measures. It is most commonly used as alternative management programs to those required in an addendum or Amendment.
If a state wishes to use conservation equivalency, it must develop a plan for review by the plan review team. The plan review team seeks feedback on the plan from the appropriate species committee (e.g. law enforcement, technical committee, advisory panel). The plan review team then determines whether the alternate measures will have at least the same effect as the original measures at limiting catch and protecting the population from overfishing. Based on this information, the plan review team will make a recommendation to the species management board on how to move forward with the plan. The Commission’s Conservation Equivalency Policy and Technical Guidance Document can be found here.
If one or more states or jurisdictions feels a species board decision is in conflict with Commission standards, it may appeal the decision to the ISFMP Policy Board. The appeal must assert that the management decision adopted violates one or more of the Commission’s five standards:
Decision not consistent with FMP
Failure to follow process
Insufficient/inaccurate/incorrect application of technical information
Historical landings period not adequately addressed
Management actions resulting in unforeseen circumstances/impacts
The appeal is first evaluated by Commission leadership (Chair, Vice-Chair and past Chair) to consider whether there is sufficient evidence that the management decision violates one or more of the standards. If they decide there is enough evidence, then the appeal is passed on to the ISFMP Policy Board for a final decision on whether the policy should remain in place. If the Board decides that the policy does not violate Commission standards, then the policy will remain as the species board originally decided it. If the Policy Board determines that the existing management program should be modified, it will issue a finding to that effect, as well as any guidance regarding corrective action to the appropriate species management board. The Commission’s Appeals Process can be found here.
Waters zero to three miles from shore are under state authority, while waters three to 200 miles from shore encompass the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which is managed under the federal authority of NOAA Fisheries, also known as the National Marine Fisheries Service (see map of jurisdictions).
Federal management, which occurs in the EEZ along the Atlantic coast, is split among three regional fishery management councils: the New England, Mid-Atlantic, and South Atlantic Fishery Management Councils. Each council develops fisheries policy for its region. NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region Fisheries Office (GARFO) has authority for final approval of all recommended management actions by the New England and Mid-Atlantic Councils, while the Southeast Regional Office (SERO) has final approval authority for management measures recommended by the South Atlantic Council. GARFO and SERO approve the actions, publish them as federal regulations, and enforce them in partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard.
With all these various agencies involved in marine fisheries management, what determines who has primary management authority for a fish or shellfish species? In most cases, that determination is made based on the predominance of the fishery in state versus federal waters. For example, more than 80% of American lobster is harvested in state waters; therefore, the Commission is the management lead. As a result, the Commission develops the FMP for lobster and recommends that NOAA Fisheries implement complementary measures in federal waters. Conversely, most of the coastal shark landings occur in federal waters, with NOAA Fisheries acting as the lead in their management. Fisheries that occur largely in both state and federal waters, such as black sea bass, bluefish, summer flounder and winter flounder, are managed through either joint or complementary FMPs with the Regional Management Councils and NOAA Fisheries.
Joint FMPs are developed together between the relevant Council(s) and the Commission; the two bodies must approve the same actions to implement new management measures. This ensures close coordination between the groups and consistent measures between state and federal waters. Summer flounder, black sea bass, and bluefish are all managed through joint FMPs with the Mid-Atlantic Council.
Complementary FMPs are developed in coordination with the relevant Council(s), but do not require like actions for approval of management measures. These plans are meant to keep management measures consistent between state and federal waters, similar to joint FMPs. However, the Council and Commission plans are not necessarily developed, or amended, at the same time as one another, which creates more flexibility, and can speed up the process by reducing the amount of interaction needed between the two groups. Coastal sharks are managed through a complementary FMP with NOAA Fisheries Highly Migratory Species, spiny dogfish is managed through a complementary plan with the New England and Mid Atlantic Councils, and Atlantic herring and winter flounder are managed through complementary plans with the New England Council.
The Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act (ACFCMA), the authorizing statute that guides the Commission’s fisheries management process, specifies all states included in an FMP must implement the required provisions of the plan in order to ensure the conservation of the species, as well as sharing in the resource’s management responsibilities. In the event a state fails to implement the required provisions, the Act establishes a process whereby the Commission has the ability to forward its finding of noncompliance to the Secretaries of Commerce and the Interior for action. In making its finding, the Commission must identify how failing to implement and enforce the required provision jeopardizes the conservation of the resource, and specify the steps a state must take to come back into compliance. The compliance finding generally stems from a management board’s annual review of the fishery management program, which includes state compliance with the program. If the Secretaries of Commerce and the Interior concur with the Commission’s finding, the Secretaries are authorized to declare a moratorium for the state’s fishery in question. The infographic below outlines the steps in the compliance process:
To read more about the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, visit About Us.
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