National Policy

Celebrating 20 Years of Essential Fish Habitat Policy

A juvenile cunner swims through healthy kelp forest at Cashes Ledge. Photo credit: Brian Skerry.

This post is by Lexi Doudera, Conservation Law Foundation’s Ocean Conservation Program Intern.

The year 2016 marks a few noteworthy anniversaries: the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and Star Trek’s 50th birthday!

And in the world of fisheries policy, perhaps the most significant anniversary – apart from the 40th anniversary of the Magnuson-Stevens Act celebrated earlier this month, of course – is the 20th anniversary of the establishment of Essential Fish Habitat policy.

Essential Fish Habitat requirements were created in 1996 as an amendment to the Magnuson-Stevens Act and heralded in a new era in fisheries management.

The groundbreaking mandate required regional fishery management councils to identify and describe all areas important for a given species, for spawning, breeding, feeding, or growth, through all life stages of that species. The mandate also required that the councils outline specific actions to conserve a species’ habitats and minimize any potential negative effects stemming from fishing these habitats.

Encompassing all habitats of fish on the move

This broad view of a species’ habitat is crucial, as a fish often shifts preferred habitat during different life stages. For example, Atlantic herring start as eggs deposited first on benthic substrates, then turn into free-floating pelagic larvae, before becoming juveniles who complete seasonal inshore-offshore migrations, and ultimately settle into adult life schooling throughout the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank, Southern New England, and the Mid-Atlantic.

To identify Essential Fish Habitat, a comprehensive species analysis must take place, consisting of information on both current and historic stock sizes, geographical range, and the timeframe of major life phases.

The distinct habitats used by fish in each life stage are characterized by physical, chemical, and biological attributes as well as other factors that have an impact on the species’ distribution, abundance, growth, reproduction, mortality, and productivity.

Zooming out

This strong emphasis on habitat launched the traditional fisheries management of old into a new realm, with a wider focus on the entire ecosystem. A broader ecosystem approach looks at more than just derived benefits that we experience, but also at the distinct ecological role of individual species’ habitat needs, whether they be coastal estuaries or offshore areas like Cashes Ledge.

At the same time, this broad view allows us a framework for management that better examines large-scale shifts in population health and ensures sustainability – now into the future.

Identifying and describing essential fish habitat is one of many steps in the long process of protecting, conserving, and enhancing the many habitats necessary for the survival and prosperity of all fish that fall under a regional council’s jurisdiction.

However, without the cooperation of all involved parties, including the NOAA Fisheries Service, regional fishery management councils, and fishermen, the important habitat goals outlined by the Magnuson-Stevens Act cannot be actualized.

In the 20 years since the Essential Fish Habitat requirements were enacted, in-depth EFH descriptions have been completed for almost 1,000 species – a considerable accomplishment. These analyses have helped maintain healthy populations and aid in the recovery of depleted stocks throughout the United States.

Ecosystem-based fisheries management and habitat protection are the kinds of landmark conservation initiatives and principles that should be included in the reauthorized Magnuson-Stevens Act. Fish stocks in New England still have a long road to recovery; in the groundfish industry alone, six stocks are still subject to overfishing and eleven are still overfished, as of fishing year 2015. Now is the time for Congress to step up and strengthen our nation’s fisheries law.

With the continued cooperation of all stakeholders, and an investment in strategies that implement the best ecosystem-based management tactics, marine species in the Gulf of Maine and elsewhere can, as the 50-year-old Vulcan adage goes, “Live Long and Prosper.”


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