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Established in 1871, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is the oldest conservation agency in the United States. Originally called the Commission of Fish and Fisheries, this federal agency was later renamed the NMFS and reorganized as part of the newly-established National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1970.
The commission initiated the nation’s first scientific studies of fish species and biology in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and was devoted to the protection, study, management, and restoration of fisheries. Although fisheries research began in Woods Hole as early as 1871, a permanent station did not exist there until 1885. A center of marine science, Woods Hole was conceived and implemented largely by one man, Spencer Fullerton Baird, who was the first U.S. Commissioner of Fisheries.
Also known as NOAA Fisheries, the NMFS is housed within the Department of Commerce and tasked with the mission of “stewardship of living marine resources and their habitat through sciencebased conservation and management and the promotion of healthy ecosystems.” As such, NOAA Fisheries has an obligation to conserve, protect, and manage living marine resources in a way that ensures their continuation as functioning components of marine ecosystems. Its mission also includes providing economic opportunities and enhancing quality of life for the public so that “the American people may enjoy the riches and benefits of healthy and diverse marine ecosystems.” This requires managing valued marine resources in such a way as to protect the health and biodiversity of important aquatic ecosystems while also maintaining and enhancing current and future opportunities for their sustainable use.
Many factors, both natural and man-made, affect the status of fish stocks, protected species, and ecosystems. Although these factors cannot all be controlled, the agency strongly influences many of them through the use of best available scientific and management practices. Maintaining and improving the health of marine systems is a difficult task that involves balancing a diverse array of public needs and interests without compromising the long-term biological integrity of coastal and marine ecosystems.
NOAA Fisheries is responsible for the management, conservation, and protection of living marine resources within the United States’s Exclusive Economic Zone (from state waters to 200 nautical miles offshore). NOAA Fisheries also plays a supportive and advisory role in the management of living marine resources in coastal areas under state jurisdiction, as well as providing scientific and policy leadership in the international arena and implementing international conservation and management measures as deemed appropriate.
NOAA Fisheries derives its mandates and authorities from numerous statutes, most importantly the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Under these acts, NOAA Fisheries assesses and predicts the status of fish stocks, ensures compliance with fisheries regulations, and works to recover protected marine species (i.e., salmon, whales, and turtles) without unnecessarily impeding economic and recreational opportunities.
With the help of six regional offices and eight councils, NOAA Fisheries works with local communities and proximate land management agencies on a diverse array of fishery management issues. Through such means as collaborating with commercial and recreational fishermen for the collection of biological data and coordinating science and management strategies with regional and state interests, NOAA Fisheries continually strives to balance competing public needs and interests in the use and enjoyment of the nation’s ocean resources.
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “NOAA Fisheries Service,” www.nmfs.noaa.gov;
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “Woods Hole: The Early Years,” www.nefsc.noaa.gov/history;
- National Research Council, Science and the Endangered Species Act (National Academy Press, 1995);
- National Research Council, Science and Its Role in the National Marine Fisheries Service (National Academy Press, 2002);
- National Research Council, Cooperative Research in the National Marine Fisheries Service (National Academy Press, 2003).