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Ending Overfishing Through Annual Catch Limits

The Magnuson-Stevens Act requires the use of annual catch limits and accountability measures in federal fisheries to end and prevent overfishing. If catch of a stock is approaching or exceeding its annual catch limit, fishery managers use accountability measures to ensure the limit is not exceeded or to correct for any overage. Accountability measures are usually some combination of size limits, trip limits, gear restrictions, and seasonal closures. All federal fisheries are currently operating under annual catch limits, as required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act. International fisheries and stocks with a short (one year) life history are not required to have these limits.

Annual catch limits ensure the amount of fish being caught each year does not harm a fish stock. NOAA Fisheries and the regional fishery management councils (councils) use stock assessments that are conducted every few years to estimate fishing rates over time and to determine if overfishing has been occurring. Keeping catch levels in check annually helps ensure fishing rates over time prevent overfishing. Learn more about how NOAA Fisheries sets annual catch limits.

ACL Performance in Preventing Overfishing

Using annual catch limits to prevent overfishing has been very successful. In 2007 when these limits were first mandated by the Magnuson-Stevens Act, 41 domestic stocks were on the overfishing list. By 2015, only 11 of those stocks were still on the list. By ending and preventing chronic overfishing, NOAA Fisheries and the councils are increasing the long-term economic and social benefits of the nation’s fisheries.

NOAA Fisheries monitors the catch levels relative to the annual catch limit for all stocks operating under these requirements. By the end of 2015, 89 percent of annual catch limits were not exceeded and only 11 percent were exceeded. There are a number of reasons to explain why catch may exceed an annual catch limit in any given year. For example, sometimes catch exceeds the limit because fishermen caught more fish than expected as bycatch in another fishery, the population size of the stock is actually bigger than scientists thought, or fishing rates are higher than estimated. By monitoring catch levels annually, NOAA Fisheries and the councils are positioned to prevent situations that lead to chronic overfishing in the long run. Allowed to continue unchecked, chronic overfishing is associated with many negative outcomes, including a depleted population. Current management practices reduce the likelihood of this happening.