Fish Stock Assessments:

Prioritization and Funding

GAO-14-794R: Published: Sep 19, 2014. Publicly Released: Sep 19, 2014.

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What GAO Found

In summary, GAO found that differences exist in the number and frequency of regional fish stock assessments conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). For example, GAO’s analysis of NMFS data from 2005 through 2013 found that the Alaska Fisheries Science Center conducted 467 fish stock assessments, the Southeast Fisheries Science Center conducted 158 assessments, and the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center conducted 25 assessments and jointly participated in 17. According to NMFS officials, these differences are due to several factors, such as regional differences in the types of fish stock assessments conducted, data limitations, workload, and staff capacity. For instance, the majority of the fish stock assessments completed by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center between 2005 and 2013 were update assessments, which are less time-consuming to conduct.

NMFS’ regional fisheries science centers collaborate with regional partners to set regional priorities for fish stock assessments, and these regional partners have significant flexibility in setting fish stock assessment priorities in their regions, according to NMFS officials. Furthermore, GAO’s review of three regional fish stock assessment priority setting processes found that there was no standardized approach for how regional fisheries science centers set targets for the fish stock assessment level (i.e., how comprehensive the assessment needs to be) and frequency (i.e., how often the assessment needs to be updated) to help set priorities. However, NMFS issued a draft protocol to help standardize regional fish stock assessment prioritization processes in February 2014. Key features of the draft protocol include establishing an objective, standardized, and quantitative approach for setting regional fish stock assessment priorities and developing a national reporting system to compile and track the results of regional prioritization decisions.

A major source of annual funding for fish stock assessments and related activities is the Expand Annual Stock Assessment budget line. In fiscal year 2013, NMFS received $64 million for this budget line, which supports ongoing activities such as data collection, stock assessment modeling, staffing, and research to improve fish stock assessments. The Expand Annual Stock Assessment budget line has also been used to address critical regional needs. For example, in fiscal year 2010, NMFS provided additional funds to the Southeast Fisheries Science Center to initiate a new data collection effort offshore from the South Atlantic states and to hire additional assessment staff and biological technicians to process sample data. Funding for fish stock assessments and related activities also partially comes from several other budget lines. According to a senior NMFS official, the agency does not separately track how much of the funds from each of these budget lines are usedsolely to support stock assessments and related activities.

NMFS considers several factors in making funding decisions to support fish stock assessments and related activities. For example, NMFS allocates funding based on past funding amounts and makes adjustments to address national fish stock assessment priorities and needs, critical gaps identified through program reviews, and needs identified in regional fish stock prioritization processes. According to NMFS’ draft prioritization protocol, decisions about allocating national resources between regions can be guided indirectly by the results of regional fish stock assessment prioritization processes. For example, NMFS’ draft prioritization protocol establishes a new quantitative scoring system to rank regional fish stock assessment priorities that may allow NMFS to determine the extent to which the regional fisheries science centers can meet their fish stock assessment needs with available resources.

Why GAO Did This Study

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the Department of Commerce, U.S. marine fisheries contribute over $100 billion annually to the American economy and provide recreational fishing opportunities to millions of Americans. As part of its responsibility for fishery conservation and management, NOAA’s NMFS conducts fish stock assessments to estimate the size of the population of a fish stock and provide support for management measures, such as limits on how many fish can be caught annually, among other things.

GAO was asked to review issues related to NMFS’ fish stock assessments. This report (1) identifieddifferences in the number and frequency of fish stock assessments conducted by NMFS’ regional fisheries science centers and the causes of those differences, (2) identified how NMFS sets priorities for conducting fish stock assessments, (3) determined the funding NMFS receives annually for conducting fish stock assessments and related activities, and (4) determined how NMFS makes funding decisions to support fish stock assessments and related activities. GAO reviewed and analyzed relevant agency documents and fish stock assessment and budget data for available years and interviewed NMFS officials and other key stakeholders.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is not making any recommendations.

For more information, contact Anne-Marie Fennell at (202) 512-3841 or fennella@gao.gov.

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