The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (hereafter referred to as ASMFC or the Commission) is the principal agency responsible for the management of many diadromous fish species in state waters. The mission of the Commission’s Habitat Program is to work through the Commission, in cooperation with appropriate agencies and organizations, to enhance and cooperatively manage vital fish habitat for conservation, restoration, and protection, and to support the cooperative management of Commission managed species. One of the primary tasks of the Habitat Program is to develop habitat source documents on topics of immediate and broad interest to ASMFC Commissioners that will provide needed information to the states. In this case, Commissioners requested detailed information on the habitat use, threats to habitat, and habitat research needs for all life stages of the ASMFC-managed diadromous species.
ASMFC coordinates interstate fishery management plans for seven diadromous fish species. Of these seven species, striped bass, Atlantic sturgeon, American shad, hickory shad, alewife, and blueback herring are anadromous; the only ASMFC-managed catadromous species is American eel. Throughout their life history, diadromous fishes occupy a broad range of rivers, bays, and estuaries from Florida to Canada, as well as the Atlantic Ocean. All diadromous fish share the common need for fresh, estuarine, and marine waters at various stages in their development. Some of these species, such as the alosines, share similar life history characteristics and range of habitat as well.
Under the 1996 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, federal Fishery Management Councils were required to identify essential fish habitat (EFH) for all species under federal management; federal agencies proposing projects within EFH areas would then be required to consult with NMFS to determine the impact of those projects on EFH. This mandate was required only for federally managed species, not for species solely under the management authority of interstate Marine Fisheries Commissions. The ASMFC subsequently chose to adopt EFH designations prepared by the federal Fishery Management Councils for any species managed jointly or in association with the Councils. For species solely under Commission management, the Commission has chosen to identify all habitat and Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (HAPCs), but will refrain from identification of EFH. The HAPCs identified by the Commission do not require consultations, or any other regulatory compliance authority.
HAPCs are areas within EFH that may be designated according to the Essential Fish Habitat Final Rule (2002) based on one or more of the following considerations: (i) the importance of the ecological function provided by the habitat, (ii) the extent to which the habitat is sensitive to human-induced environmental degradation, (iii) whether, and to what extent, development activities are, or will be, stressing the habitat type, or (iv) the rarity of the habitat type. Since descriptions of EFH are not currently included in Commission Fishery Management Plans (FMPs), the HAPC definition has been modified to include areas within the species’ habitat that satisfy one or more of the aforementioned criteria. A HAPC is a subset of habitats the species is known to occupy, and could include spawning habitat, nursery habitat for larvae, juveniles, and subadults, and/or some amount of foraging habitat for mature adults. HAPCs are geographic locations that are particularly critical to the survival of a species.
All Atlantic coast states are impacted by numerous threats to their natural resources; diadromous fish species are particularly vulnerable because they utilize both coastal and inland habitat during portions of their life history. Poor water quality, altered habitat, blocked access, suboptimal conditions, and invasive species are just a few of the conditions that jeopardize many fish. According to the ASMFC Five-Year Strategic Plan (2009-2013), the loss and degradation of nearshore marine and estuarine fish habitat is a significant factor affecting the long-term sustainability of the nation’s fisheries. Diadromous fish species occupy these habitats during a critical period in their life history; it is therefore imperative that fisheries managers provide coordinated management of these areas.
In 2006, the National Fish Habitat Action Plan (NFHAP) was adopted to address the need for improved coordination of fisheries conservation efforts throughout the nation. Currently, the existing NFHAP lacks a Habitat Conservation Plan that directly addresses the needs of diadromous fish species. This document will serve as a basis for the development of the diadromous portion of a conservation strategy for the Atlantic Coastal Fish Habitat Partnership (ACFHP). The ACFHP hopes to conserve habitat for Atlantic coastal, estuarine-dependent, and diadromous fish.