The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), often referred to as the “NOAA Fisheries Services,” is an agency within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration responsible for management, conservation, and protection of the nation’s marine resources. The agency regulates commercial and recreational ocean fishing and manages marine life and habitats in waters 3 to 200 nautical miles from a U.S. shore within an area known in maritime law as an “exclusive economic zone,” where countries have enhanced resource-exploitation rights.
The NMFS works to promote the multi-billion-dollar fishing industry through sensible stewardship while balancing the competing interests of economics and conservation. The agency devotes significant time 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.
In 2010 the agency came under fire for excessively fining commercial fishermen, particularly in the Northeast region, prompting congressional and Inspector General investigations.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has its origins on the country’s oldest conservation agency, the United States Fish Commission of Fish and Fisheries established in 1871. The agency studied and managed live ocean resources at a time when there was already some awareness about depleted fish stocks in the waters off the Atlantic Seaboard. In 1903, the commission came under the authority of the newly created Department of Commerce and Labor. A decade later, when the Department of Commerce and Labor was split in two, the Bureau of Fisheries was added to the Commerce department until 1939, when it moved to the Department of the Interior. A year later, the Bureau of Fisheries merged with the Bureau of Biological Survey to create the Fish and Wildlife Service.
In 1956, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries and the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, which focused on recreational fishing. In 1970, President Richard Nixon transferred almost all functions associated with the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries to the Department of Commerce and the office was renamed the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The NMFS draws its authority for managing marine fish stocks from the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, amended in 1996. The Act created eight regional management councils to oversee fisheries. The 1996 amendment sought new ways of replenishing depleted fish stocks, which have been falling for decades. In 2007, President George W. Bush signed into law the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006, which updated the Act with deadlines to end overfishing, increased use of market-based management tools, the creation of a national saltwater angler registry and an emphasis on ecosystem approaches to management. Two other acts—the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act—also give the NMFS the authority to conserve ocean wildlife.
For more information, see:
Fisheries Historical Page (Northeast Fisheries Science Center)
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) works to conserve, protect, and manage marine resources. The agency assesses and predicts fish stocks, ensures compliance with fisheries regulations and reduces wasteful fishing practices. It also recovers protected marine species such as whales and turtles and works with local communities through six regional offices on fishery management.
The two main functions of the NMFS are regulatory and scientific research. The regulatory arm oversees the Office of Sustainable Fisheries, which manages fish stocks for commercial, recreational, and subsistence use. It also oversees the Office of Protected Resources, which protects marine mammals and endangered marine life, and the Office of Habitat Conservation,which runs restoration projects. The office also carries out the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Act, which established eight regional fishery management councils that submit recommendations for agency approval.
The research arm of the NMFS oversees six regional science centers that provide and vet scientific research and data to policy makers and the Office of Science and Technology.
NMFS administrative functions include nationwide oversight of law enforcement offices that carry out more than 35 federal statutes and enforces U.S. treaties and international laws. The agency also manages the NOAA Aquaculture Program, which works to create employment and business opportunities in coastal communities with commercial fishing, and the Seafood Inspection Program, which ensures compliance with food-safety regulations at all stages of seafood harvesting, processing, and sales. The Office of International Affairs coordinates policy with other countries, advocates for U.S. interests and also participates in free-trade negotiations.
For more information, see:
FishWatch U.S. Seafood Facts (Information for seafood consumers)
National Bycatch Program (Information about NOAA’s conservation efforts to prevent the unintended capture of marine species in commercial fishing)
NMFS Permits (Information about programs requiring federal permits for fishing activities)
From the Web Site of the National Marine Fisheries Service
National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) duties aid other federal agencies, as well as local, state, and regional governments that conserve and manage marine life. The agency’s work also aids academia, the fishing industry, conservation groups, and international organizations.
The agency offers a number of grants through its regional offices and other programs such as the Saltonstall-Kennedy Grant Program, which awards recipients for research and development projects that benefit the U.S. fishing industry and the Prescott Grants, which provides funding for recovery and treatment of stranded marine mammals.
The agency also provides a number of financial programs for commercial fishermen including the Fisheries Finance Program, which provides loans to build or reconstruct fishing vessels and facilities, the Capital Construction Fund Program which allows commercial fishermen to defer tax on income from operation of their vessels when used to help pay for a vessel project. The Fisherman’s Contingency Fund Program helps compensate fishermen for economic and property losses caused by oil and gas obstructions.
According to USA Spending, 338 grants that included the term NMFS were awarded, totaling more than $301 million between 2000-2011.
NMFS Deals with Fallout from Congressional and OIG Investigations
In 2010, the Commerce Inspector General issued a series of reports that found that there were widespread systematic issues that adversely affected NOAA’s ability to regulate the fishing industry, particularly in the Northeast region. The Inspector General found that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) was overzealous in enforcement and levying fines against commercial fishermen, particularly in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. Dale Jones, the director of NMFS’ Office of Law Enforcement was also accused of document shredding and questionable spending from a fund that contained millions in fines paid by fishermen.
Fishermen claimed that enforcement officials would set fines initially high to pressure settlements. One fisherman told the Office of the Inspector General (OIG): “I was fined by [the senior GCEL attorney] $27,000… As time went on, [the senior GCEL attorney] said that 'if you don't pay the $27,000 right now, if you want to go in front of one of my judges, you'll be paying $120,000 to $140,000.' I settled for $25,000 bucks. I was scared to death. They wouldn't give me the boat back. I couldn't get the boat back to fish and make payments until I paid the fine.”
The Inspector General found that the Northeast region fined fishermen $5.5 million from 2004-2009, five times more than other regional offices and that the disproportionate treatment stemmed from hiring too many criminal investigators to enforce the mostly civil caseload that NOAA has. The Inspector General said “there are indications in the record that this workforce composition was driven by considerations of the better pay and benefits that apply to federal criminal investigators, rather than by strict mission requirements.”
Following the reports, lawmakers put intense pressure on NOAA to reform management; some even called for the resignation of NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco. Jones was removed from his position, though he was kept on in the agency as a fishing program specialist and in January 2012 his career rebounded with a new position as head of the NOAA Enterprise Data Management program. Charles Juliand, a senior enforcement lawyer was also reassigned after Inspector General reports criticized him for displaying “animus” toward members of the New England and Mid-Atlantic commercial fishing industry. Then Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke also worked to resolve the issues raised in the OIG reports.
In response, the agency has drafted policies that would provide better guidance to its lawyers in calculating fair and consistent fines. The OIG’s office also said that it would commission a forensic review and, in February 2012, it released a follow-up report on the asset forfeiture fund.
In June 2011, NOAA produced an independent auditor’s report (pdf) on the fund.
Summary of the Inspector General's Report on NOAA Fisheries Law Enforcement (by Saving Seafood)
Final Report—Review of NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Programs and Operations (Office of the Inspector General, Department of Commerce)
Investigation Snags Fisheries Law Enforcement Office (Saving Seafood)
NMFS Criticized for Underestimating Affect of BP Oil Spill on Wildlife
The April 2010 explosion at Deepwater Horizon, an ultra-deepwater offshore drilling rig leased to BP, caused the death of 11 crewmen and the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. Four months after the disaster, very large fish kills were reported along the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. In 2011, more than 290 corpses of dolphins and their newborn have also washed ashore in the areas of the Gulf most heavily affected by the disaster, along with endangered sea turtles. Biological oceanographer Dr. Ed Cake believes these fish and dolphin kills are all related to the spill and criticizes NMFS and NOAA for failing to determine the cause of these deaths. He also cites a February 2011 gag order by NMFS that forced marine scientists contracted to document the spikes in dolphin deaths and collect specimens to keep their findings confidential.
“In the year since the spill began, NOAA admits to doing no tissue sampling, which to me is scientifically incredible, for if you have forensic samples, you are bound by protocols to have them analyzed right away so they do not degrade, unless your purpose is not to know what is killing these dolphins,” Cake told Al Jazeera English.
A March 2011 study in Conservation Letters also found that the true impact of the oil spill on wildlife may have been gravely underestimated, arguing that the fatality figures based on the number of recovered animal carcasses isn’t accurate because most carcasses sink before being spotted.
BP anniversary: Toxicity, Suffering and Death (by Dahr Jamail, Al Jazeera English)
Animal Deaths in BP Spill Possibly Greatly Underestimated: Study (Wiley-Blackwell and World Science)
The Collapse of Fish Populations
All-Time Low Expected for Sacramento Chinook (TheFishSite)
A Fishy Story: Federal Fisheries Agency Blames Ocean Conditions for California Central Valley Salmon Decline (by Dan Bacher, California Progress Report)
In Alaska, fishing industry drives marine conservation: An interview with Dave Benton of the Marine Conservation Alliance (by Rhett A. Butler, Mongabay.com)
Odd Animal Deaths, Deformities Linked to Gulf Oil Spill? (by Ker Than, National Geographic News)
Bush’s Ocean Action Plan
Conservationists hailed President George W. 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.
Report Card: Lack of Federal Funding Hinders Ocean Health (Environment News Service)
In September 2010, the Inspector General for the Department of Commerce suggested that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) carry out reforms to correct “systemic, nationwide issues” connected with NOAA Fisheries. The Inspector General said that the most recent controversy stems from highly complex fishing laws that make compliance difficult even with the best of intentions. The OIG also questioned whether NOAA’s workforce and management structure is appropriate in carrying out the complicated mission of enforcing regulations with transparent processes. The OIG’s office suggested the following reforms:
1. NOAA should exercise greater management and oversight of regional enforcement operations.
2. NMFS should strengthen policy and procedures and internal controls to fix the perception that fines had been unfairly levied.
3. The agency should reassess its workforce, which presently comprises 90% criminal investigators, to determine if this structure is effective in accomplishing its regulatory mission.
Eric C. Schwaab, 2010-present
Dr. Jim Balsiger, 2008-2010 (Acting)
Jim Balsiger returned to his position as the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) regional administrator for Alaska, after serving two years as Acting Assistant Administrator for the NMFS.
Bill Hogarth, 2001-2007
After serving seven years as Acting Administrator, Hogarth left government to become interim dean of the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida. In 2010, he was named the director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography, an independent entity of the state university system in Florida that collaborates with 20 institutes and agencies on marine research.
As Assistant Administrator, Hogarth implemented plans to fulfill requirements in the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries act to end overfishing and rebuild the nation’s overfished fisheries. Hogarth said in 2007 that conflicting mandates and vague wording in the law prevented the agency from ending overfishing and caused a number of lawsuits against the agency. One of his first initiatives was to strengthen administrative processes, to reduce litigation.
Penelope D. Dalton, 1999-2001
After leaving the NMFS, Dalton served as vice president of the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education, a nonprofit organization that represents 99 leading public and private ocean research education institutes, and industry leaders working to advance research, education and ocean policy. CORE also manages scientific ocean drilling, ocean observing, ocean exploration, and ocean partnerships.
In 2005, Dalton took the position of Director of Washington Sea Grant (WSG), one of the first programs designated nationally as a Sea Grant College. WSG conducts research and outreach and develops strategic partnerships in the marine community, to serve industries and communities in Washington state and the Pacific Northwest. WSG is part of a national network of 30 Sea Grant colleges administered by NOAA, providing provides a national infrastructure in every coastal and Great Lakes state in the nation.
Rolland 'Rollie' Schmitten, 1993-1999
After serving as Assistant Administrator, Schmitten served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Affairs under NOAA, the National Director of Marine Habitat Conservation and was a U.S. Whaling Commissioner from 1995-2005. In 2009, he was appointed to the Washington (state) Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission where he will serve until 2014.
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.