What are fish managers?

By: Jonathan Strickland
Men fishing outdoors, catching fish.
John Rueth, the Assistant Manager of the Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery, assists in the transport of a Chinook Salmon.
Kimberly White/Getty Images

Do you enjoy a quiet mo­rning with a rod and reel or stuffing yourself at an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet? Either way, you owe a debt of thanks to fish managers.

A fish manager is not an upwardly mobile trout, nor is it a pet store employee in charge of aquariums. Fish managers are in charge of overseeing fish populations within a region or specific body of water called a fishery. It's the manager's job to maintain a healthy fish population and take measures when the fish stocks are at risk. In the United States, there are both freshwater and saltwater fish managers. They work with federal, state and local governments to create fishing policies.


It's a really big job. Fish populations can be very delicate -- many factors can impact the wellbeing of fish. Fish managers have to monitor the environment and watch out for pollution from dangerous chemicals or runoff. If a predatory population increases, the other fish populations will likely decrease. But perhaps the biggest factor is overfishing from humans.

Fish managers must also have a deep understanding of the fish they oversee. They have to know where and when the fish reproduce. They need to know the life cycle of each kind of fish. If the fish are susceptible to certain diseases or chemicals, the manager should be aware of that, too.

­The­re's another factor fish managers have to keep in mind when they do their job: the human factor. The decisions fish managers make have real-life consequences for millions of people, from fishermen to consumers. Fishermen who rely on harvesting specific fish stocks for their livelihood may find themselves out of a job if a fish m­anager places restrictions on fishing. It's not always an easy decision -- the fish manager has to balance the needs of the community with those of the environment.

As you can probably imagine, this sometimes means the fish manager has to deal with delicate situations. For example, in the United States, some tribal communities rely on fishing as a means of subsistence or as a way to preserve cultural traditions. Many areas in the United States have special regulations that protect these communities and their fishing practices, sometimes at the expense of recreational or commercial fishing. Fish managers have to take all of this into consideration when creating policies.

We'll take a closer look at the way fish managers make policies in the next section.


Fishery Management Plans

International conference on global fisheries
A United States delegation of fishery managers and stakeholders attend a conference in Tokyo about global fisheries.
Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Fish managers are responsible in part for creating a fishery management plan (FMP). But to write an FMP, the manag­er must first find out as much about the fishery as possible. That could require commissioning a biological survey of the fishery to determine the biomass of each fish stock as well as the status of the environment.

This can take years. There are 50 FMPs for 247 fish stocks overseen by the National Marine Fisheries Service [source: NMFS]. That's because it's hard to gather all the information necessary to create an effective FMP, particularly with marine species. Many species migrate thousands of miles, making it difficult to assess population size accurately. Fish managers may have to look at fishing trends over several years to draw conclusions about a particular fish stock.


The FMP for fish stock outlines fishing regulations and limitations that fishermen in the United States must follow. It might include specific catch limits or a quota system. The catch-share quota system is gaining popularity in the United States. Under this system, fishermen are allowed to catch a certain number of fish within each season. There's no incentive for rushing or hoarding, because the FMP doesn't allow the fishermen to sell more than their respective quotas allow. With some systems, fishermen can sell or trade quota permits. Early studies suggest that this sort of system can help rehabilitate a depleted fish population while minimizing the economic impact on fishermen [source: Taylor].

Marine fish managers in the United States must follow the regulations set out by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation And Management Reauthorization Act Of 2006. These include:

  • Preventing overfishing while ensuring the best harvest possible
  • Relying upon the best scientific information
  • Managing each fish stock as a single unit when possible
  • Treating multiple closely interrelated fish stocks as a single unit
  • Preventing infringement by policies of one state upon the rights of another state
  • Keeping in mind the unique nature of each fishery -- what's appropriate for one fishery may not work for another
  • Balancing conservation with the economic impact fishing restrictions have upon the community
  • Reducing bycatch as much as possible -- bycatch is the term for unwanted fish caught during a harvest
  • Promoting safety

While the NMFS oversees marine (or saltwater) fisheries, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is in charge of America's freshwater fisheries. Every state has its own fishery department in charge of maintaining and regulating the freshwater fisheries in that state. That includes all lakes, ponds, rivers and streams. Like their marine counterparts, freshwater fish managers have to balance conservation with economic considerations. There are dozens of laws and regulations on the federal, state and local level that protect freshwater fisheries.

Fish managers work closely with local scientists, politicians and fishermen to create an FMP that protects both the environment and the economic wellbeing of the fishing industry. While some measures may cause fishermen to suffer a short-term reduction in revenue, the goal is to create a sustainable industry that is both profitable and sustainable.

To learn more about fish managers and related topics, take a look at the links on the next page.



Lots More Information

Rela­ted H­owStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Chambers, LantArea. "Ensuring a Future for Fisheries." Coast Guard Magazine. June 2005. pp. 14-16.
  • Economist. "Fishy Business." Oct. 11, 2008. Vol. 397, Issue 8601, pp. 52-53.
  • National Marine Fisheries Service http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. http://www.noaa.gov/
  • NOAA Fisheries Service. "Implementing the Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization Act of 2006." (Nov. 4, 2008) http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/msa2007/docs/One-and-a-half-year_ReportV2_PQ.pdf
  • ­Taylor, Peter Shawn. "A smart new way to save the fisheries." Maclean's. Oct. 6, 2008. Vol. 121, Issue 39, p. 25.
  • United States Fish and Wildlife Service. http://www.fws.gov/