Marine Life Management Act

Summary  |  Master Plan  |  Fishery Management Plans  |  Frequently Asked Questions  |  Additional Information


The Marine Life Management Act (MLMA), which became law on January 1, 1999, opened a new era in the management and conservation of California's marine living resources. In fashioning the MLMA, which was introduced as AB 1241 by Assemblyman Fred Keeley, the Legislature drew upon years of experience in California and elsewhere in the United States and the world.

The Act includes a number of innovative features.

  • The MLMA applies not only to fish and shellfish taken by commercial and recreational fishermen, but to all marine wildlife.
  • Rather than assuming that exploitation should continue until damage has become clear, the MLMA shifts the burden of proof toward demonstrating that fisheries and other activities are sustainable.
  • Through the MLMA, the Legislature delegates greater management authority to the Fish and Game Commission and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
  • Rather than focusing on single fisheries management, the MLMA requires an ecosystem perspective including the whole environment.
  • The MLMA strongly emphasizes science-based management developed with the help of all those interested in California's marine resources.


The fishery management system established by the MLMA applies to four groups of fisheries.

  1. The nearshore finfish fishery and the white seabass fishery.
  2. Emerging fisheries - new and growing fisheries that are not currently subject to specific regulation.
  3. Those fisheries for which the Fish and Game Commission held some management authority before January 1, 1999. Future regulations affecting these fisheries will need to conform to the MLMA.
  4. Those commercial fisheries for which there is no statutory delegation of authority to the Commission and Department. (In the case of these fisheries, CDFW may prepare, and the Commission may adopt, a fishery management plan, but that plan cannot be implemented without a further delegation of authority through the legislative process.)


The MLMA sets out several underlying goals.

  • Conserves Entire Systems: It is not simply exploited populations of marine life that are to be conserved, but the species and habitats that make up the ecosystem of which they are a part.
  • Non-Consumptive Values: Marine life need not be consumed to provide important benefits to people, including aesthetic and recreational enjoyment as well as scientific study and education.
  • Sustainability: Fisheries and other uses of marine living resources are to be sustainable so that long-term health is not sacrificed for short-term benefits.
  • Habitat Conservation: The habitat of marine wildlife is to be maintained, restored or enhanced, and any damage from fishing practices is to be minimized.
  • Restoration: Depressed fisheries are to be rebuilt within a specified time.
  • Bycatch: The bycatch of marine living resources in fisheries is to be limited to acceptable types and amounts.
  • Fishing Communities: Fisheries management should recognize the long-term interests of people dependent on fishing, and adverse impacts of management measures on fishing communities are to be minimized.


To meet these standards, the MLMA calls for using several basic tools.

  • Science: Management is to be based on the best available scientific information as well as other relevant information. Lack of information should not greatly delay taking action. To help ensure the scientific soundness of decisions, key documents should be reviewed by experts.
  • Constituent Involvement: The MLMA places a strong emphasis on decision-making that is open and that involves people who are interested in or affected by management measures.
  • Fishery Management Plans: Rather than ad hoc and piecemeal decisions on individual fisheries, the aim is to base decisions on comprehensive reviews of fisheries and on clear objectives and measures for fostering sustainable fisheries. The vehicle for this objective is a fishery management plan.
  • Master Plan: CDFW will prepare, and the Fish & Game Commission will adopt, a Master Plan that prioritizes fisheries according to the need for comprehensive management through fishery management plans.
  • Status of the Fisheries Report: Annually, CDFW will prepare a report on the status of California's fisheries and the effectiveness of management programs.

Fisheries and Fishery Management Plans

As elsewhere in the United States and the world, the management of fisheries in California has generally been undertaken in a piecemeal fashion. Borrowing from experience with federal fishery management law, the MLMA has initiated a more comprehensive approach to fisheries management. The primary vehicle for this approach is the development of fishery management plans for all of the State's major recreational and commercial fisheries.

Fishery management plans (FMPs) are just that: planning documents. FMPs assemble information, analyses, and management alternatives that allow CDFW to provide a coherent package of information and management measures to the Fish & Game Commission.

Under the MLMA, FMPs are to include at least the seven following elements:

  • Description of the fishery
  • Fishery science and essential fishery information
  • Basic fishery conservation measures
  • Habitat provisions
  • Bycatch and discards
  • Overfishing and rebuilding
  • Procedure for review and amendment of an FMP

The preparation of FMPs is a complex process that requires considerable research and discussion before adoption. Recognizing the size of this task, the Legislature called initially for the adoption of only two FMPs: one for the white seabass fishery and one for the nearshore finfish fishery.

Other legislation requires the preparation of recommendations for a squid management plan and an abalone recovery and management plan. Future FMPs will be prepared based on priorities identified in the Master Plan.

Portions of the content on this web page were taken from: Weber, M. and Heneman, B., 2000, Guide to California's Marine Life Management Act, CommonKnowledge Press, Bolinas, California.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a fishery management plan?

A fishery management plan is defined as a document that describes the nature and problems of a fishery along with regulatory recommendations to manage the fishery. In essence it is a planning document that contains all the necessary information to make informed decisions on sustaining marine resources while allowing harvest opportunities. Under the MLMA, fishery management plans will provide:

  • Biological information about the marine resources under consideration
  • Habitat needs and issues
  • Through the MLMA, the Legislature delegates greater management authority to the Fish and Game Commission and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife
  • Harvesters and their habits
  • Conservation and management measures already in place
  • The ecological role of the resource
  • The environmental effects that might have to be considered
  • The most appropriate management tools

What is the Master Plan?

The Master Plan is literally a "road map" to how California fisheries will be managed. Specifically, the Master Plan will include: a prioritized list of fisheries in need of fishery management plans; a process for how the public may be involved in developing fishery management and research plans; a description of the essential fishery information that will be needed to effectively manage the top priority fisheries; and a process of how these various plans will be amended or revised. The Master Plan is a first step in making clear and explicit, the complex process of fisheries management.

How is the public going to share in the responsibility of managing the living marine resources of California?

One of the changes the MLMA set into motion was to make the regulatory planning and decision-making process more open to the public. The Act instructs CDFW and Commission to "involve all interested parties, including, but not limited to, individuals from the sport and commercial fishing industries, aquaculture industries, coastal and ocean tourism and recreation industries, marine conservation organizations, local governments, marine scientists and the public." To achieve this mandate several communication tools are being employed:

  • The MLMA Evaluation Advisory Committee was created to advise the California Department of Fish and Wildlife on implementation of all aspects of the MLMA. The Advisory Committee is composed of appointed representatives from the recreational and commercial fishing communities, the conservation and environmental community, and the scientific community.
  • The California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Fish and Game Commission have made the regulatory process more accessible to their constituents by holding public meetings at several locations across the state and during hours more encouraging to public involvement.
  • CDFW and the Fish and Game Commission are using the Internet to inform more of the public about meetings and management activities in the marine environment. By making information more accessible and timely, the public may become better informed and enter into management discussions early in the processes.

How has the Marine Life Management Act changed the responsibilities of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Fish and Game Commission?

Prior to the passage of the MLMA in 1998, the responsibility for managing most of California's marine resources harvested by commercial fisheries lay with the State Legislature, while the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Fish and Game Commission managed the recreational fisheries and those commercial fisheries that had catch quotas that changed periodically. Management of commercial fisheries under this division of responsibility was complicated, piecemeal, and oftentimes untimely, with necessary regulatory changes only occurring after much political deliberation and approval by both the Assembly and the Senate. In addition, this division of authority often resulted in laws and regulations that were inappropriate for the sustainability of the resource. The MLMA transfers permanent management authority to the Fish and Game Commission for the nearshore finfish fishery, the white seabass fishery, emerging fisheries, and other fisheries for which the Commission had some management authority prior to January 1, 1999.