Annual Catch Limits (ACLs)

Overview of the ACL-Setting Process

In 2006, amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) included additional requirements to prevent and end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks. The added measures require regional fishery management councils to amend their fishery management plans to include a mechanism for specifying annual catch limits (ACLs) for all stocks or stock complexes at a level such that overfishing does not occur and to implement measures to ensure accountability for adhering to these limits. The MSA further directed that, unless otherwise provided for under an international agreement to which the U.S. participates, this mechanism had to be established by 2010 for stocks subject to overfishing, and by 2011 for all other stocks. ACLs are required for all federally managed stocks, whether the fishery management plan includes a catch share program or not.

According to the National Standard Guidelines of the National Marine Fisheries Service, a regional fishery management council’s ACL for a stock may not exceed the acceptable biological catch (ABC) recommendation of the council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee for that stock. The ABC is a single value selected from a range of possible values based on consideration of the stock’s life history and reproductive potential, vulnerability to overfishing, and uncertainty associated with factors such as stock assessment results, time lags in updating assessments, retrospective revision of assessment results, and projections. The National Standard Guidelines allow a council to divide an ACL for a stock into sub-ACLs. An example of sub-ACLs are the West Coast’s sector-specific ACLs, which determine the quota pounds (QP) allocated to li mited entry trawlvessels in the West Coast Shorebased IFQ Program.

ACL Graphic


Trends in Annual Catch Limits

The charts provided below show the ACLs for allocated species/species groups in the Shorebased IFQ Program from 2011 through 2017. In general, there has not been large variability in ACLs over the seven-year period. However, for some species ACLs increased considerably in recent years. In some cases, overfished species have been declared rebuilt ahead of schedule. Catch share programs do not directly affect decisions about ACLs, but indirectly affect those determinations because catch share programs are typically implemented coincident with enhanced catch accounting and monitoring requirements, which can reduce management uncertainty and scientific uncertainty. Provisions of the Shorebased IFQ Program, including the accountability measures listed below, together with increased levels of at-sea observer coverage, are expected to contribute to a reduction in uncertainty.

In Their Own Words

Although some of the quantitative data analyzed for this indicator exhibited clear trends, it was challenging to discuss the relationships between observed data trends and implementation of the respective catch share programs. The Measuring the Effects of Catch Shares project team believed that those stakeholders most involved in the fishery, either as active participants or as representatives of an involved coalition of participants (e.g., sector managers in the Northeast), would be able to provide insight and help to explain trends seen in the existing quantitative data. The following quotes were selected to illustrate some of those perspectives and highlight trends such as effects on small vessels, the effect of avoiding “choke stocks,” fleet diversification, and product quality. The individual quotes do not represent findings or conclusions for this indicator, nor do they represent a consensus across any category of participants.

“Last year I caught a yellow-eye in 240 fathoms, and they don’t live out there. They just don’t live there, but we caught one. And I only had 3 lbs. of yellow-eye quota. Well, this fish weighed 4 lbs. Boom, I was over.”
~ Fisherman

“Gear switching really hasn’t worked the way they thought. What it’s done is let the fixed gear people come and buy trawl quota and put it into the fixed gear side. And that is hamstringing the Dover you’re going to get out of the water. Where you had 100% of the amount of black cod to prosecute your old fisheries, now you don’t have that, and it’s going to leave Dover, it’s going to leave other fisheries in the water. So I don’t think that that was right. I don’t think that they foresaw that.”
~ Fisherman

“Right now two months is all I groundfish. I’ll go get my petrale, my black cod, and what little Dover I get with those two species. And when I catch the petrale and black cod, I’m done. I’ve got 1.2 million lbs. of Dover sole, but I can’t catch that Dover because I’ve caught all my black cod.”
~ Fisherman

“If the abundance of a species isn’t recognized by the stock assessment, and you start running into a lot of it, then you got a problem.”
~ Fisherman

“This thing, it just inhibits and inhibits and inhibits. There’s no new opportunity developing here at all. They’ve taken black cod and allowed to be caught by pot boats. Sounds real good on the surface until you figure that black cod’s your biggest choke species for Dover. And then you double the Dover ACL. I mean honestly…”
~ Processor

“Lingcod has been declared rebuilt, but you can’t really target lingcod because ling cod and yellow-eye like the same kind of grounds. Canary rockfish is another very constraining species, extremely so. If a boat has 2,000 or 3,000 pounds of canaries in his quota, that’s a pretty decent quota, and he’s got to leave fish in the ocean because he can’t target them for fear of going over. Canary has become a very big bargaining chip late in the season. We’ve got increased numbers on our rockfish and ling cod, but you’ve got to be very, very careful. You can put yourself out of business from one day to the next if you’re not careful.”
~ Fisherman

“The way I look at it, we’ve had great shrimp years. Environmentally, we’ve had just terrific conditions for the last four or five years. And that’s not going to stay. It never does. And when it goes downturn now, it used to be you can go out there and work harder and do whatever, and you can’t do that now. You have so many constraints, and you got the costs so high. The fixed costs are so high that you can’t go out there and scrape anymore. And you can’t afford to catch too many canaries, yellow eye, halibut, all that stuff. Plus you’re paying a $500 day. Plus you’re paying the lease rates. And that’s why I think it’s more volatile. Pretty soon you’re going to have a crappy shrimp year, whether it’s next year or year after. And there’s going to be a bunch of guys, oh well, I better try to go dragging, you know, or spend more time dragging. So then everybody is going to be competing for leasing fish, which is great for the guys leasing it, ’cause their lease price will go up. But for those of us fishing, it just chips away at the profit.”
~ Fisherman

Accountability Measures

A suite of accountability measures applies to all sectors of the groundfish fleet, including in-season catch monitoring and adjustments to keep within specified harvest guidelines. Other accountability measures used in the overall management framework to respond to sector-specific ACLs for overfished species include automatic closure of sectors, depth restrictions, and changes in season length. In addition to all the existing measures in the management framework, the following specific accountability measures apply to the Shorebased IFQ program:

  • If a vessel exceeds its quota for any stock on a trip, it must be covered with QP within 30 days of the time that data or documentation from the trip shows there is an overage.
  • If the overage is within the carryover provision, the vessel has 30 days (or a reasonable time, whichever is greater) after the QPs for the following year are issued.
  • For any vessel with an overage (catch not covered by QP), fishing that is within the scope of the IFQ program will be prohibited until the overage is covered, regardless of the amount of the overage, using QP from the following year(s), if necessary.
  • Limited entry permits attached to vessels with an overage may not be sold or transferred until the deficit is cleared.

A carryover allowance is intended to allow surplus QP in a vessel’s QP account to be carried over from one year to the next or allow a deficit in a vessel’s QP account for one year to be carried over and covered with QP from a subsequent year. However, the surplus carryover provisions can only be implemented when the groundfish fishery ACL has been set below the ABC. Surplus QP may not be carried over for more than one year.

  • The carryover allowance is limited to up to 10 percent carryover for each species.
  • Observers must monitor the sorting of catch, and the weighing and discarding of any individual bycatch quota and IFQ species.
  • The sorting, weighing, and reporting of any IFQ species must be monitored by a shoreside landings monitor.

Information Sources

Brinson, A. and E. Thunberg. 2013. The Economic Performance of U.S. Catch Share Programs. National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-F/SPO-133.

National Marine Fisheries Service. 2009. National Standards Guidelines.

Pacific Fishery Management Council. 2010. Groundfish Fishery Management Plan, Appendix E. Description of Trawl Rationalization (Catch Shares) Program. 

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