Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act


The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) is the principal law governing marine fisheries management in the federal waters of the United States. The MSA was reauthorized in 2007 with legal requirements to end overfishing by 2011 and establish annual catch limits (ACLs) and accountability measures (AM’s) on every fishery managed by NOAA – the agency charged with the oversight of the MSA. Unfortunately, NOAA Fisheries implements the ACL’s and AM’s in hard-poundage quotas, which works well for commercial fisheries but is not an effective management approach for many recreational fisheries. At the end of the 115th Congress, the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act was signed into law, which amended MSA to allow for the use of more appropriate management tools for managing recreational fisheries, as well as an opportunity to expand the incorporation of better data from the states and other sources into fishery stock assessments.


Since its original passage in 1976, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) has made progress in preventing foreign fishing in U.S. waters, ending overfishing, rebuilding depleted fish stocks, protecting essential fish habitat, and making a variety of other improvements to the nation’s marine resources. However, it remains primarily a model for commercial fisheries management and fails to adequately address the significant socioeconomic, cultural, and conservation values of recreational fishing. Current laws and policies governing saltwater recreational fishing have not kept pace with the evolution of recreational saltwater fishing, including its growing popularity and tremendous economic impact. The recreational fishing community should be treated with equal priority because the impact is the same, or greater in certain areas, than the commercial industry in terms of number of jobs provided and total economic benefits. However, interestingly enough, recreational anglers account for only a fraction (approximately 2%) of the nation’s total finfish landings according to a Southwick Associates’ study commissioned by the American Sportfishing Association. Furthermore, the study found that the recreational sector contributed $152.24 in value-added, or GDP, for one pound of fish landed, compared to the commercial sector’s $1.57 for a single pound of fish landed.

The most recent reauthorization of MSA provided some latitude in developing different management approaches that could address many of the challenges currently facing recreational anglers. However, due to the reluctance of National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to interpret the various provisions broadly enough to make the needed adjustments, some specific direction to NMFS and the Regional Fishery Management Councils (Councils) was necessary. The recreational fishing community worked diligently to address the need for better recreational fisheries management through the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017 (HR 2023/S 1520). These bills sought to amend antiquated provisions of MSA and to enhance recreational fisheries management and access while also improving conservation measures. An amended version of SB 1520 ultimately passed the 115th Congress and was signed into law by President Trump, on December 31, 2018.

Points of Interest

The provision in the enacted Modern Fish Act that seek to improve federal fisheries management for recreational anglers includes:

  • Alternative Recreational Fisheries Management – Although the 2007 reauthorization of MSA did not preclude a different management approach, the Modern Fish Act specifically clarified that NMFS and Councils can manage recreational anglers based on strategies like harvest rates (similar to inland fisheries management), rather than a hard poundage quota, for recreationally valuable fish stocks.
    • In June 2022, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council approved a new process for setting recreational measures (bag, size, and season limits) and modifications to the recreational accountability measures for summer flounder, scup, and black seabass. This first step towards alternative management in the region will consider two factors – harvest estimates in relation to recreational harvest limits and the most recent estimate of stock size relative to the target stock size. Evaluations as to how the management measures are performing or need adjusting will be made every two years to account for new information on the stock status, as opposed to every year under a typical annual catch limit.
  • Allocations – In many mixed-sector fisheries, allocations between commercial and recreational fisheries are often decades old and do not reflect current social, economic, or environmental conditions. The Modern Fish Act directed the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study allocation procedures and offer recommendations on the allocation process between the recreational and commercial sectors in order to maximize the value of our nation’s fishery resources. The GAO report was released on March 31, 2020.
  • Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) – MRIP is the federal recreational harvest data program that is often used for stock assessments and quota monitoring. While it is generally an acceptable survey for long term trends across multiple species and large geographic areas, it does not have the precision necessary for in-season management, particularly with species that have a relatively short season like red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. The Modern Fish Act called for a study conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to analyze how well MRIP meets the needs of in-season management of fisheries with annual catch limits (ACLs) and any recommended changes to improve the program. The NAS report was released in July 2021.
  • Limited Access Privilege Programs (LAPP’s) – LAPPs, or catch shares, are intended to reduce capacity and participation in a fishery. While this model has applicability in purely commercial fisheries, it has created significant user conflicts in fisheries pursued by both recreational and commercial fishermen. The Modern Fish Act directed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Academies to study the impacts of LAPP’s in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. The NAS report was released on August 18, 2021.
  • Better Recreational Harvest Data – The Modern Fish Act requires federal fisheries managers to explore other data sources that have tremendous potential to improve the accuracy and timeliness of harvest estimates, such as state-driven programs (e.g., Louisiana’s LA Creel[7]) and electronic reporting (e.g., through smartphone apps). However, NMFS has been slow to incorporate any non-federal data into stock assessments.

Moving Forward

For the first time, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, as amended by the Modern Fish Act, recognizes that commercial and recreational fisheries are fundamentally different activities and require different management approaches. However, it remains to be seen how different management approaches will be implemented at the regional level in the coming years. Thus far, NMFS has made no effort to suggest or encourage using alternative management methods for any given recreational fishery. Any change in the management of a particular fishery will have to be pushed through the Council process by the recreational fishing community and state fisheries management agencies. Furthermore, additional amendments to MSA based on the outcome of the GAO and NAS studies will likely be necessary to ensure the law fully realizes the social and economic contributions of recreational angling.

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