The science of sustainable seafood, explained

First Nationwide Assessment of Non-Federally Managed Fisheries in the U.S.

A new study produced by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the University of Washington (UW) provides the first-ever nationwide assessment of non-federally managed fisheries in the United States.

United States marine fisheries annually support over 1.8 million jobs, generate $255B in sales, and contribute $117B to the GDP, representing enormous socioeconomic and cultural value nationwide. The scale and significance of fisheries also underpins the critical importance of prioritizing fisheries science and management to ensure that the marine resources we enjoy today will stay healthy for future generations.

Fisheries management in the United States is implemented primarily under state or federal jurisdictions. Nationwide, there are currently 492 federally-managed fisheries, which are tracked by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries) using the Fish Stock Sustainability Index (FSSI) across five federal management regions. The health of these federal fisheries is documented in a detailed nationwide report summarizing the status and trends of federally managed fisheries each year. However, state and territory fisheries management agencies operate more independently. This means there are no nationwide metrics or syntheses to date that would allow a comprehensive understanding of the status of non-federally managed fisheries, even though these fisheries represent 40% of the total commercial value of marine fishery landings in the U.S.

The study produced by UW and TNC provides the first-ever nationwide synthesis of the status and management performance of non-federally managed fisheries using the Fisheries Management Index (FMI), which is a metric based on five dimensions of fisheries management: stock status, research, management response, enforcement, and socioeconomics. The FMI is derived from an expert survey that was completed by over 130 fisheries management agency experts from all 23 coastal marine states and five U.S. territories. The FMI surveys covered 311 of 1,992 total identified non-federal fisheries with a 91% survey response rate from state agency experts. These 311 fisheries represented 97% of commercial volume, 93% of commercial value, and 49% of recreational landings nationwide. The study fills a critical knowledge gap regarding the status of U.S. fisheries and performance of non-federal management systems, and is published in the journal Fish and Fisheries, available here.

Key findings of the Fisheries Management Index

  • In the United States, fisheries management at the state/territory level is less funded than federal fisheries management.
  • Nationwide, over 80% of the 1,992 non-federally managed fisheries have unknown stock status (i.e., no estimate of current stock abundance and fishing pressure relative to target levels), and over 60% (almost 1,200 fisheries) are not actively managed by state or federal agencies.
  • Commercially or recreationally important fisheries received more management attention and a greater proportion of these fisheries had recent estimates of stock status.
  • Fisheries that were prioritized by state/territory agencies received more management attention and thus tended to have stock abundance and fishing pressure closer to target levels (i.e., are in better condition).
  • In over half the surveys, experts cited data limitations and resource constraints as the biggest barriers to more active and effective management.

The study’s lead researcher, Dr. Mike Melnychuk, observed that “Around the world we see tremendous variability in fisheries management intensity among countries. This study showed that even within a single country, we still see substantial variability in how fisheries are managed, both among regions and among individual species.”

Future of non-managed U.S. fisheries

While there is no analogous index to the Fish Stock Sustainability Index (FSSI) for state-managed fisheries, the FMI provides a way for state fisheries management performance to be evaluated and tracked nationwide. This can provide state agencies with both a trend and a target not only for stock health, but also for data availability, enforcement, and socioeconomic metrics. This would allow state fisheries management performance to be reported in a nationwide context in parallel with the current NOAA Fisheries annual ‘Status of Stocks’ reports.

Improving the sustainability of fisheries across the U.S. is challenging yet solvable. This study indicates that fisheries management currently practiced by state agencies can effectively maintain or improve the condition of fisheries if they are prioritized for management attention. Greater adoption of adaptive, cooperative management and data-limited fisheries management tools can help overcome barriers to more active and effective management. Partnerships with fishing communities and other stakeholders can boost resources and management capabilities, improve data collection, and close information gaps to support sustainable fisheries, strong coastal economies, and resilient fishing communities into the future. This is especially important given the immediate management challenges that are now posed by accelerating symptoms of climate change.


This study would not have been possible without the generous assistance of more than 130 U.S. state and territory fishery management agency experts who completed the FMI surveys. In addition, state agency managers provided helpful assistance in directing the study authors towards knowledgeable respondents and providing state-level management information.

Picture of Lyall Bellquist

Lyall Bellquist

Lyall is a Senior Fisheries Scientist with the California Oceans Program at The Nature Conservancy, and is based in San Diego at Scripps Institution of Oceanography

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