Expert Report

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

The mission of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is to manage U.S. marine fisheries so they can serve the nation now and benefit future generations. As NMFS manages marine fisheries, it operates under a complex set of laws. Based in part on its concerns over the dramatic increase in recent lawsuits against NMFS, Congress requested in 2001 that the National Academies provide "a summary review of the adequacy of the data, scientific foundation, models, and processes used by NMFS to guide resource management, meet regulatory requirements, and provide support in response to litigation." This report makes recommendations to NMFS and Congress to enhance the use of data and science for fisheries management.

Key Messages

  • A better structure to conduct science in NMFS would improve outsiders' perceptions of NMFS scientists and science. A structure that allowed scientists to operate objectively and independently of the management body (but was responsive to requests for scientific investigations) could improve both the image and the performance of NMFS.
  • Fisheries management depends on the availability of a variety of biological, environmental, economic, and social data on a timely basis, and NMFS is involved in a variety of activities to collect and manage such data.
  • Fishery management plans do not always include enough measurable quantitative goals and specific data collection and analysis to monitor the achievement of goals.
  • NMFS faces the daunting task of maintaining its traditional stock assessment activities in the face of pressures to harvest the maximal sustainable yield for most fisheries, meeting the new requirements added by the 1996 MSFCMA amendments, and meeting the requirements of the ESA and MMPA for which NMFS does not have a strong workforce or focused data collection activities.
  • NMFS is required by the MMPA and ESA to develop conservation or recovery plans for protected, threatened, or endangered species, such as marine mammals and sea turtles, listed under the ESA. Those plans often identify research needs related to understanding the biology and population dynamics of the target species and the causes of their decline that might be mitigated through regulation of human activities that affect them or their habitats.
  • NMFS is responsible for administering a wide array of legislative mandates, requiring broader scientific knowledge than is available from scientific activities traditionally conducted by NMFS.
  • NMFS receives independent scientific input from a variety of sources, including the National Research Council (see references for list of reports with advice to NMFS), academic scientists, the Marine Mammal Commission, independent groups commissioned by NMFS, and recovery teams set up pursuant to the ESA and MMPA.
  • NMFS science tends to be strongest in basic fish biology and population dynamics. NMFS has important but relatively small research efforts related to integrated bioeconomic analysis, climate effects on fish populations, how fish live in the context of ecosystems, and habitat-fisheries interactions.
  • Past National Research Council committees found that NMFS stock assessments generally have been done correctly given the data available and have used reasonable assumptions.
  • Social and economic data collected by NMFS are inadequate for understanding the effects of past management on fisheries and fishing communities and for predicting outcomes of management alternatives. Fishery management plans often do not include adequate social and economic goals.
  • The scientific expertise available to NMFS is focused largely on stock assessment science and fish biology, with increasing demands in ecosystem science, biology of protected species, and social sciences.
  • The use of science in the marine fisheries management decision-making process is impeded by the governance system created by the MSFCMA and the resulting mismatch between institutional authorities and responsibilities.