Updated August 17, 2018
Federal Management of Saltwater Recreational Fisheries
Federal management of saltwater recreational fishing by
the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has received
increasing attention from Congress. Many constituents have
expressed concerns with the allocation of fishing quotas
among different fishing sectors; data collection and
assessment of recreational fishing activity; and use of
management measures, such as catch limits. Marine
recreational fisheries have been the focus of several specific
bills and have been included in efforts to reauthorize the
Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management
Act (MSA; 16 U.S.C. 1801 et seq.).
What Is Recreational Fishing?
Recreational fishing—also referred to as sport fishing or
angling—involves fishing for pleasure as opposed to for
profit or subsistence. Measurement of recreational fishing
activity and value are determined by the number of fishing
days or fishing trips taken and characteristics that describe
the quality of fishing experiences, such as catch rates and
other aesthetic qualities. Some anglers fish from shore or
private boats, and others may pay to fish from for-hire
vessels that are called charters or party boats. According to
NMFS, in 2015, private and commercial recreational
activities provided national economic impacts of 439,000
jobs and $22.7 billion in personal income (wages and
salaries) to coastal communities.
Recreational Fishery Management
Fisheries are managed under several overlapping
management authorities that are based on state and federal
laws, regional compacts among states, and Native
State and Regional Management
Inland freshwater and marine fishing out to 3 nautical miles
(nm) from shore are managed primarily by states (state
waters extend to 9 nm for the west coast of Florida, Texas,
and Puerto Rico). Regional management is facilitated along
the East, Gulf, and West coasts by commissions formed
under multistate compacts and supported by the
Interjurisdictional Fisheries Act (16 U.S.C. 4101-4107).
These efforts support data collection and management of
coastal stocks that move among various states’
jurisdictions. Of the three commissions, the Atlantic States
Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) has developed the
most comprehensive management system under its
interstate management program and the Atlantic Coastal
Fisheries Cooperative Management Act (16 U.S.C. 51015108). ASMFC develops regional management plans that
are implemented by each state.
The MSA is the principal federal law that governs
conservation and management of fisheries that occur
primarily in the exclusive economic zone (3-200 nm from
shore). The MSA requires federally managed stocks of fish
to be managed as a unit throughout their range. A large
portion of recreational catch is taken in state waters because
these waters are more accessible to anglers and game
species may be relatively abundant in them. Often there is a
need to closely coordinate federal, regional, and state
efforts because many species are found and caught in both
federal and state waters. Some species, such as summer
flounder, are managed by joint management plans under the
authority of MSA and by the states through ASMFC.
The MSA prohibits overfishing and requires annual catch
limits (ACLs) for all federally managed stocks. To avoid
overfishing, landings are limited to the ACL and
accountability measures are developed to ensure the limit is
not exceeded or to correct for any overage in a given year.
The total ACL is then divided among different users that
include commercial and recreational, and sometimes forhire sectors. Recreational management measures often
include a combination of measures including catch limits,
season length, bag limits, and size limits.
Table 1. Recreational Fishing Effort and Catch 2016
(units in thousands)
Gulf of Mexico
Source: Personal communication from the National Marine Fisheries
Service, Fisheries Statistics Division, August 16, 2018.
Notes: Texas, Alaska, and Pacific recreational fisheries are
monitored by state natural resource agencies. The Texas survey does
not include released fish. West Pacific U.S. territories and U.S. Virgin
Islands are not currently included in the survey. Data for the Pacific
coast region is preliminary and will be updated in the coming months.
Management of marine species requires the collection of
data on fishing effort, such as fishing trips and catch of
marine recreational anglers (Table 1). Data are collected
through the Marine Recreational Information Program
(MRIP), which is administered by NMFS, regional
commissions, and cooperating states. Programs generally
consist of a mail survey that attempts to estimate the
Federal Management of Saltwater Recreational Fisheries
number of shore and private boat trips, a for-hire survey
that estimates the fishing effort of charter and party boats,
and an angler intercept survey that estimates the catch rates
and composition of recreational harvest. Some states
conduct their own surveys or surveys of specific fisheries
that supplement MRIP efforts.
Actions in the 115th Congress
In the 115th Congress, several bills have been introduced
with provisions that would directly and indirectly affect
recreational fisheries. The Modernizing Recreational
Fisheries Management Act of 2017 (S. 1520 and H.R.
2023) focuses on marine recreational fisheries. The Florida
Fisheries Improvement Act (S. 1748) is more general but
includes recreational fishing provisions. All three bills
include sections specific to the South Atlantic and Gulf of
Mexico regions as well as provisions that would apply to
national issues. The House-passed MSA reauthorization
bill, Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing
Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act (H.R. 200),
includes sections similar to those in H.R. 2023. Although
specific sections of H.R. 2023 and S. 1520 differ, common
study and review of allocation among fishery sectors in
South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico regions;
data collection, assessment, and analysis of recreational
use of alternative fishery management measures in
recreational fisheries (alternatives to ACLs).
All four bills would require the Secretary of Commerce to
arrange for the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a
study on fisheries allocation and direct the Gulf of Mexico
and South Atlantic Councils to review the allocation of
fishing privileges in their regions periodically.
H.R. 2023, S. 1520, and H.R. 200 also include general
provisions that would establish criteria and an expanded
review process for exempted fishing permits; provide
greater flexibility in applying ACLs and in setting
rebuilding time frames for overfished stocks; and address
concerns with limited access privilege programs in South
Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico mixed-use fisheries.
Issues and Stakeholder Views
The allocation of the total ACL among different fishing
sectors can be extremely controversial. Often, species such
as halibut or black sea bass are caught by different sectors.
The MSA requires that allocation be fair and equitable to all
fishermen. However, one’s concept of equity often depends
on individual values and beliefs. The allocation of fish
among fishing sectors is usually related to historical
landings and practices.
Controversy may develop when a sector’s fishery is
constrained by its sub-ACL, resulting in shortened seasons
and stricter management measures. Often this encourages
members of commercial or recreational sectors to advocate
for a greater portion of the total ACL. Allocation is further
complicated by changing fishing conditions, participation,
social values, and stock abundance.
Generally, recreational interests are supportive of changes
featured in these bills because some believe that study and
review of allocation could bolster their arguments for a
greater portion of the total ACL. Typically, commercial
fishing representatives are skeptical of these reviews
because they suspect greater attention could lead to changes
that may modify current allocation. Although the allocation
review would include only the Gulf and South Atlantic
regions, some commercial industry representatives have
voiced reservations because they believe allocation studies
could have national implications.
Collection of recreational fisheries data is complicated by
the large number of recreational anglers and the scattered
nature of landing sites. In most cases, estimates of
recreational fishing effort and landings depend on surveys
and statistical methods based on a sample of angler effort
and catch. Season length is then determined by projections
of when the sector’s sub-ACL will be reached.
Some recreational fishermen question whether the MRIP
provides timely, accurate estimates of recreational fishing
activity and whether the associated stock assessments
provide a realistic picture of stock abundance. They often
contend that strict management measures may not be
necessary, especially when they experience high catch
Recreational groups generally are supportive of proposals
to increase nongovernmental, state, and other cooperative
efforts to collect recreational data. However, there are
challenges related to integrating new technologies and
reporting systems with existing data collection programs.
For example, some studies indicate that voluntary programs
using smartphone apps may introduce bias from
Alternatives to ACLs
ACLs have been controversial because quotas often
constrain the length of recreational fishing seasons. Many
recreational and commercial fishing groups have been
supportive of greater flexibility when setting ACLs and
rebuilding overfished stocks. Some recreational interests
also support alternatives to ACLs. They reason that
management measures such as quotas have been designed
for commercial fisheries and that measures such as target
fishing mortality rates are more appropriate for recreational
management. Some interests, especially environmental
groups, counter that significant progress has been made in
stopping overfishing and that proposed changes could
reverse these gains and decrease accountability.
For more information on MSA reauthorization, see CRS In
Focus IF10267, Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation
and Management Act (MSA): Reauthorization Issues for the
115th Congress, by Harold F. Upton.
Harold F. Upton, Analyst in Natural Resources Policy
Federal Management of Saltwater Recreational Fisheries
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https://crsreports.congress.gov | IF10949 · VERSION 3 · UPDATED