The Coast Guard’s mission to enforce fisheries laws at sea was assigned in 1976 by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. In order of importance, the Coast Guard’s priorities are to:
- protect the U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ) – all waters within 200 miles of U.S. shoreline – from foreign encroachment;
- enforce domestic fisheries law. Sustainability of fisheries is ensured through management plans developed by regional councils. The Coast Guard enforces these plans at sea, in partnership with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), an agency of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); and
- enforce international fisheries agreements, in conjunction with the Department of State, to protect national interests and marine species that cross national boundaries.
U.S. fisheries support a $24 billion annual industry, and the nation’s EEZ is the largest in the world, containing 3.4 million square miles of ocean and 90,000 miles of coastline. Given the nation’s size and the sprawl of its territories, the task of protecting living marine resources – from Maine to Guam, from the Arctic Circle to the Gulf of Mexico – presents unique challenges to each Coast Guard district. However, as service members have discovered over time, each region also offers opportunities and alliances unlike those found anywhere else in the world.
In the mid-Atlantic, where the Coast Guard’s 5th District enforces fisheries law from the North and South Carolina border to just south of Sandy Hook, N.J., one of the most common fisheries violations is illegal fishing for Atlantic striped bass, a species whose numbers plunged precipitously back in the 1980s before reviving under state and federal management plans. Though pursued passionately by recreational fishermen, stripers are generally not sought by commercial fishermen, but regulations forbid fishing for striped bass more than 3 nautical miles from shore. Because striped bass tend to congregate in schools for extended periods of time before moving on, patrols from the 5th District often encounter clusters of trawlers around these schools. An annual enforcement exercise, Operation Striper Swiper, concentrates district resources on these flotillas.
Fish aren’t the only marine species the Coast Guard is charged with protecting; under the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and other laws, executive orders, and international treaties, the service also works to keep the nation’s ocean environment rich, diverse, and sustainable. Throughout the year, one of the most endangered whales in the world, the North Atlantic right whale, travels back and forth through the mid-Atlantic, between its northern feeding grounds to its calving grounds off the coasts of Georgia and Florida.
Only about 400 North Atlantic right whales remain, and along the heavily trafficked Atlantic coast, the greatest threat to their safety is injury from ship strikes. In the 5th District, living marine resource (LMR) officers periodically carry out Operation Right Speed, which consists of patrols enforcing speed limits for large vessels in seasonal management areas established by NOAA.
LMR boarding officers face an unusual administrative challenge: There are two NMFS regions within the district, the Northeast and Southeast, delineated at the Virginia and North Carolina border. In the Northeast, the primary fishery is sea scallops, while groundfish and migratory pelagic species such as tuna, swordfish, sharks, and billfish are more common in the Southeast region. Many federally licensed fishing vessels are required to carry a transponder that reports the vessel’s location, course, speed, and targeted species to the Coast Guard’s Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) – but these reporting requirements are considerably different in the Southeast region, which makes it more difficult for field commanders to position assets for enforcement and boarding opportunities. Overall in District 5, less than half of these fishing vessels carry the VMS transponder.
“Over time,” said Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Saunders, an LMR officer with the 5th District, “there have developed different case package requirements for the different types of fisheries boardings. We’re dealing with two NOAA Regional Offices now, so our boarding officers have to be proficient in the different requirements established by each office, which is more than most Coast Guard districts have to deal with.”
The 5th District recently partnered with a new ally – the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) – to find a reliable means of determining the location of the pelagic fishing fleet. Fishermen have been using NOAA data, such as chlorophyll levels, bathymetry, currents, and sea surface temperatures, to locate specific pelagic species, and the NGA, a military agency, had developed the capability to map those characteristics. “We surveyed some fishermen and figured out which levels of chlorophyll and which temperatures certain species prefer to be in,” said Saunders, “and we worked with them [NGA] to be able to get these plotted.”