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The U.S. Coast Guard and Marine Environmental Protection

Safeguarding the nation's maritime resources



The Coast Guard’s earliest official involvement in protecting natural resources began in 1822, shortly before the new Territory of Florida was added to the nation. In passing the new act for “the preservation of timber of the United States in Florida,” Congress moved to protect a species of sturdy live oak, native to the southeastern United States, that was the material of choice for building American warships. The law banned timber harvesting on federal lands, and mandated the forfeiture to the United States of any vessel whose owner or master knowingly transported timber taken from these reserves. Revenue cutters were charged with patrolling the coasts of Florida to enforce compliance with this law.

As little as a few decades ago, the ocean’s fisheries seemed inexhaustible, but surges in demand, along with climate change and rising ocean temperatures, have ramped up pressures on an increasingly valuable – and fragile – resource.

Since the early 19th century, the agency’s mission to safeguard the nation’s natural resources has expanded considerably; the Coast Guard is charged with protecting living marine resources and the sea itself. Like the 1822 law, many of its earliest duties were aimed at preventing the depletion or extinction of economically valuable species. Among these species were the many marine animals on which Americans relied for food.

Congress noted as early as 1871, when it established a U.S. Fish Commission, that many of the nation’s most valuable “food fishes” were rapidly diminishing, and for decades, the legislature and the White House worked together on measures to preserve these species. Many of these measures were implemented on an ad hoc basis, and many assigned new regulatory or enforcement responsibilities to the Revenue Cutter Service and, later, the Coast Guard.

fisheries enforcement

A CGC Morgenthau boarding team member inventories salmon aboard the fishing vessel Yin Yuan in the North Pacific Ocean May 27, 2014. A half-ton of salmon, found with fishing net scars, was discovered on the Yin Yuan during a boarding conducted under the authority of China Fisheries Law Enforcement Command. U.S. Coast Guard photo by CGC Morgenthau

The current system of active fisheries management – management plans determined by regional councils; evaluated, approved, and implemented by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS); and enforced by the Coast Guard – was not implemented until the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The law created the 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), extending outward from U.S. shores, that effectively quadrupled the offshore fishing area controlled by the United States.

As little as a few decades ago, the ocean’s fisheries seemed inexhaustible, but surges in demand, along with climate change and rising ocean temperatures, have ramped up pressures on an increasingly valuable – and fragile – resource. According to the NMFS, while the overall value of fish landed at U.S. ports was a little more than $5.1 billion in 2012, the international trade in coastal marine fisheries contributed about $70 billion annually to the U.S. economy. At the same time, 39 commercially and recreationally important fish populations are experiencing overfishing, and another 43 populations remain at unhealthy levels.

With the stakes so high, the Coast Guard’s enforcement role has never been more important. Under existing statutes and treaty agreements, the service is charged with preventing illegal encroachment into the U.S. EEZ by foreign fishing vessels, ensuring compliance with U.S. laws and regulations, and helping to monitor and enforce compliance with international agreements.

The vastness of the U.S. EEZ – at 3.36 million square miles, the largest in the world – has led the Coast Guard to develop relationships that extend its reach, including the bilateral shiprider agreements that allow law enforcement officers from other nations to exercise their authority while aboard a vessel under a partner nation’s flag. These agreements have proven especially valuable in the service’s largest area of responsibility: the 14th District, which extends from the Hawaiian Islands nearly 4,000 miles westward to Guam, and more than 2,500 miles south to American Samoa. In the spring of 2014, for example, the Coast Guard cutters Assateague and Sequoia participated in Operation Rai Balang, a joint fisheries patrol involving the United States, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The cutters traversed more than 7,500 miles over a period of 40 days through the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands’ EEZ and surrounding high seas.

A few weeks later, the interdiction of a vessel illegally fishing on the high seas of the North Pacific illustrated the importance of international agreements that apply to the ocean expanse that lies beyond any nation’s EEZ. While operating a joint patrol with the Coast Guard’s 17th (Alaska) District, a Canadian maritime patrol aircraft, with Japanese spotters aboard, detected a 191-foot-long fishing vessel, the Chinese-flagged Yin Yuan, in the ocean 625 miles east of Tokyo, Japan, on May 22. The vessel exhibited physical characteristics of large-scale drift net fishing.

The United Nations has banned high seas drift net fishing since 1992, and the United States is one of many nations cooperating in the joint enforcement of this ban. Drift net fishing is an indiscriminate and destructive method of netting pelagic fish – and any other living creature that happens across the often miles-long expanse of what Cmdr. Chris Barrows, deputy chief of the 17th District’s enforcement division, calls a “yawning gate of death.”

The spotters relayed their sighting information to the CGC Morgenthau, which was patrolling in the area, with Chinese shipriders aboard, as part of a multilateral fisheries law enforcement operation. On May 27, the Morgenthau interdicted the fishing vessel and assisted the boarding by Chinese law enforcement officers, which uncovered a half-ton of salmon and multiple violations on board. The Chinese law enforcement officials summoned their headquarters in Beijing, and the vessel was transferred into the custody of the Chinese coast guard on June 3.


Marine Environmental Protection

Through its Marine Environmental Protection Program, the Coast Guard develops and enforces regulations to keep invasive species out of the maritime environment, to prevent unauthorized ocean dumping, and to prevent oil and chemical spills into the ocean and waterways. The service’s involvement in environmental protection can be traced to the Refuse Act, a section of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, that outlawed the “dumping of refuse” into navigable waters and gave the Revenue Cutter Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers joint enforcement authority. The Clean Water Act of 1972 provides the current framework for the Coast Guard’s Marine Environmental Protection Program.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...