South Atlantic Fishery Management Council

Habitat and Ecosystem

Habitat and Ecosystem

Two of the Council Fishery Management Plans are habitat-based plans with over 400 coral species and associated habitat conserved under the Coral, Coral Reefs and Live Hard Bottom Habitat FMP, and two species of the only structural pelagic habitat under the Pelagic Sargassum Habitat FMP. Management provides the Council the ability to address conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem function through protection of benthic and pelagic habitats essential to managed species in the region.

Essential Fish Habitat

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens Act) requires federal fishery management councils and NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to designate Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) for species managed under federal fishery management plans (FMPs).

EFH is defined as “those waters and substrates necessary to fish for spawning, breeding, feeding, or growth to maturity”.

Priority areas within EFH for conservation and management are called EFH-Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (EFH-HAPCs or HAPCs) and are designated based on ecological importance, susceptibility to human-induced environmental degradation, susceptibility to stress from development, or rarity of the habitat type.

FMPs must evaluate how fishing activities may adversely affect EFH and minimize those effects to the extent practicable. FMPs must also identify actions to minimize the effect of non-fishing (e.g., coastal development) activities, discuss cumulative effects, identify prey species, recommend research and information needs for EFH, and consider identifying HAPCs.

South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council) designated essential fish habitat (EFH) and EFH-Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (HAPC) are presented in the SAFMC EFH User Guide and spatial representations of these and other habitat-related layers are within the Council’s EFH Maps. EFH designation is provided to many of the managed areas. Maps of the managed areas can be found here


Staff Contact

EFH Policy Statements

The Council develops EFH policy statements to address specific habitats and activities that affect habitat EFH policy statements provide detailed descriptions of habitat resources, discuss potential impacts to those resources, and identify actions that protect EFH.

The Council’s EFH policy statements and recommendations provide NMFS, state agencies, other Federal and regional habitat partners guidance and rationale to conserve and protect EFH in the South Atlantic region. The Council may revise EFH policies and recommendations or develop new policies as needed to address its habitat mandates.

Food Webs and Connectivity (Developed – Dec 2016)

Assess potential threats and impacts to managed species EFH and EFH-HAPCs and the South Atlantic ecosystem associated with changes in food webs and connectivity and processes that could improve those resources or place them at risk.
– Incorporate into management strategies the potential indirect effects of fisheries on food web linkages and identify unintended consequences;
– Use food web models to simulate the ecosystem, understand food web linkages, inform single species assessment and management, generate reference points and ecosystem-level indicators to enhance ecosystem stability and resilience.

Climate Variability and Fisheries (Developed – Dec 2016)

Assess potential threats and impacts to managed species EFH and EFH-HAPCs and the South Atlantic ecosystem associated with climate variability or change and processes that could improve those resources or place them at risk.
– Develop indicators to track ecological, social, and changing fisheries trends that appear to be due to changing ocean environmental conditions;
– Consider tradeoffs and necessary responses to account for predicted and realized increases or decreases in productivity;
– Apply the precautionary approach and careful scientific and management evaluation as new fisheries develop.

Marine Aquaculture (Developed- June 2014)

Provide guidance for marine aquaculture development in offshore and coastal waters, riverine systems, and adjacent wetland habitats to protect EFH. 
– Require effective regulation under MSA and other applicable federal statutes;
– Require at least a 10-year permit with annual reporting, operational and option for revocation;
– Require only drugs, biologics, and other chemicals approved for aquaculture by the FDA, EPA, or USDA be used;
– Allow only native species for aquaculture in federal waters of the South Atlantic and prohibit use of genetically modified organisms unless approved by FDA;
– Require applicant to provide all information necessary to thoroughly evaluate the suitability of potential aquaculture sites;
– Require applicant/permit holder to develop environmental monitoring plans for projects authorized under MSA and have adequate funds committed to ensure removal of organisms and decommissioning of facilities;
– NOAA Fisheries specify conditions of use and outline process to repeal, modify or revoke permits.

Marine Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (Revised June 2014)

Protect remaining habitat and support actions to restore SAV in locations where they have occurred in the past. 
– Develop a comprehensive adaptive management strategy to address SAV decline;
Adopt a reliable status and trend survey methodology (mapping and monitoring) to verify the location, health, and coverage of SAV at sub-regional and/or local scales.

Beach Dredging and Filling, Beach Renourishment and Large-Scale Coastal Engineering
(Revised Sept. 2023)

Avoid, minimize and offset damage to EFH from large-scale dredging and disposal of sediments in the coastal ocean and adjacent habitats.
– Require a comprehensive environmental document be prepared for each project;
– Specify fill material match the sediment characteristics of the recipient beach as closely as possible;
– Limit dredging to bathymetric peaks and the shallowest depths possible to reduce the likelihood of infilling with fine-grained sediments.

Energy Exploration, Development, Transportation and Hydropower Re-Licensing

Provide guidance for energy exploration, development and transportation in offshore and coastal waters, riverine systems and adjacent wetland habitats. Avoid and minimize impacts to EFH and EFH-HAPCs and optimize benefits from these activities.
– Use best available, least damaging technologies to avoid, minimize, and offset damage to EFH, EFH-HAPCs and avoid intersection or overlap with allowable fishing areas within the Deepwater Coral HAPCs;
– Design energy exploration activities and facilities to avoid impacts on coastal ecosystems and sand sharing systems.
– Comply with existing standards and requirements regulating domestic and international energy transportation including regulated waste disposal and emissions.
– Avoid open-loop LNG processing facilities in favor of closed-loop systems with water intake minimized and establish baseline studies and project monitoring.
Recommend that pilot scale projects not occur in areas where full-scale efforts are predicted to be environmentally unacceptable (e.g., MPAs, CHAPCs, and Spawning SMZs).

Alterations to Riverine, Estuarine and Nearshore Flows (June 2014)

Avoid, minimize, and offset damage to EFH and EFH-HAPCs, diadromous fishes, state and federally-listed species, Federal critical habitat, and State Critical Habitat Areas (CHAs) caused by alteration of flows in southeast rivers, estuaries and nearshore ocean habitats.
– Provide detailed impact analyses, assessments of potential unavoidable damage to EFH and other marine resources;
– Avoid impacts, require compensatory mitigation for unavoidable impacts, and account for the cumulative impacts in the same watershed;
– Recommend that projects meet state and Federal water quality standards, include baseline monitoring, and establish on-going maintenance and repair programs;
– Recommend that construction not coincide with spawning migrations or early development of sensitive species;
– Avoid impingement and entrainment of sensitive species at water intakes and provide detailed requirements for developing the intake design;
– Natural flow regime should be altered as little as possible;
– Hydropower projects implement ramping rate restrictions and a non-peaking window during the critical reproductive and rearing periods.

Marine & Estuarine Ecosystems from Non-Native and Invasive Species (Developed 2014)

Prevent invasive species from impacting marine and estuarine habitats in the South Atlantic region.
– Remove species from the FMU to allow control or eradication strategy to be implemented;
– NOAA Fisheries remove invasive species as a compensatory mitigation measure and require plant materials be obtained through local nurseries;
– Grant funding to promote research and education and outreach efforts targeting invasive species;
– National Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force support developing management plans for potentially invasive species in South Atlantic waters;
– Develop novel gears and invasive species harvest, eradication, and/or removal strategies/programs which do not impact South Atlantic habitats and ecosystems and encourage removal from areas of high ecological/economic importance;
– Integrate monitoring of invasive species into existing fishery-independent and dependent programs;
– Require inspection/surface cleaning prior to placement of Fish Attracting Devices;
– Discourage use of non-indigenous species in aquaculture in the SA region and ensure compliance with existing regulations;
– Energy infrastructure permits require monitoring the settlement and dispersal of non-indigenous species;
– Regional partners develop regulations controlling ballast water and research and development to advance treatment technology.

Artificial Reefs (Developed 2017)

Protection and mitigation (avoidance, minimization, and compensatory mitigation) of EFH and EFH-HAPCs related to artificial reef development, placement, and maintenance.
– Defines uses of ARs: recreational and commercial activities, spawning, breeding, feeding, and refuge for growth to maturity;
– Support state requests to designate specific ARs as SMZs;
– Provide a more standardized comparison for scientific investigations;
– Managers consult with stakeholders prior to siting in order to reduce user conflict and maximize the value of ARs as EFH;
– Properly site ARs to connect life stages of target species, do not impact right whales/Atlantic sturgeon or hazards to navigation;
– Require the use of environmentally safe, long-lasting materials for reef construction;
– Consider impacts of decommissioning structures on a case-by-case basis;
– Mitigation measures be specified if the function of an AR is lost.

Completed Amendments

  • Comprehensive Ecosystem-Based Amendment 2

    Included in the Comprehensive Ecosystem-Based Amendment 2. Modified management of octocorals in the South Atlantic, special management zones off South Carolina, and sea turtle release gear requirements for the snapper grouper fishery. Designated essential fish habitat (EFH) and EFH-Habitat Areas of Particular Concern for multiple fishery management plans.

    Jan 30, 2012
  • Comprehensive Ecosystem-Based Amendment 1

    Included in the Comprehensive Ecosystem-Based Amendment 1. Established deepwater Coral Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (CHAPC) and established Shrimp Fishery Access Areas and Allowable Golden Crab Fishing Areas within the CHAPCs. Provided spatial information for Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) and EFH-HAPC under multiple fishery management plans.

    Jul 22, 2010
  • Dolphin Wahoo Fishery Management Plan

    This original FMP intended to conserve and manage dolphin and wahoo off the Atlantic states (Maine through the east coast of Florida), and to ensure that no new fisheries for dolphin and wahoo develop.

    Jun 28, 2004
  • Comprehensive EFH Amendment

    Included in the Comprehensive EFH Amendment. Identified essential fish habitat (EFH) and established EFH-habitat areas of particular concern (HAPC) for managed species in the South Atlantic.

    Jul 14, 2000