The Coast Guard first assumed responsibility for protecting the nation’s living marine resources (LMR) in 1894 when members of the Revenue Cutter Service began camping out in Alaska’s remote island chains to protect the area’s fur seal population from illegal hunting.
That’s a place and time far removed from the cockpit of the Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules aircraft that was flying off the coast of New Jersey in February 2011. Circling high overhead the Hudson Canyon offshore, the aircraft’s crew was a part of a fisheries law enforcement operation seeking to prevent the harvesting of sea scallops in an area then closed to such activity.
Scallopers were suspected to be illegally fishing in the closed area, potentially damaging the recovery of the Hudson Canyon’s sea scallop population. However, locating and gathering evidence against these perpetrators in such a large, exposed area presented several challenges.
Both the surface and air assets currently used by the Coast Guard are visible from a distance, affording violators an opportunity to hide evidence of any illegal activity. Additionally, aircraft, despite being more mobile and having a broader range of vision, are limited in their ability to obtain quality visual evidence from a high altitude.
“For years, the idea of building fisheries enforcement cases solely from an air asset was seen as difficult due to establishing the burden of proof,” explained Coast Guard Lt. Gregory M. Rehlender, the Law Enforcement and LMR Division chief at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., where the aircraft and its crew are based.
“Changing tactics was necessary to capture evidence without detection,” continued Rehlender. “The major catalyst of this change was the advancement of technology. The first step was utilizing a suitable platform. The mission system integration of our HC-130 opened up a tremendous intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability.”
Rehlender is referring to new video and positioning equipment that allows aircrews to document vessels and suspicious activity at high altitudes and at night, as well an improved airframe with higher cruising altitudes and longer ranges.
The outcome: clear proof of three vessels illegally fishing inside the closed area, resulting in four cases against them. Each successfully prosecuted case not only stops the offending poacher, but also serves as a deterrent to other would-be violators.
This living marine resources operation symbolizes how the Coast Guard’s responsibilities have in many ways remained the same since 1894, while simultaneously evolving in response to new threats and to capitalize upon new technology. Nowhere is this truer than in the 5th District.
Stretching from mid-New Jersey and south Pennsylvania through North Carolina, the Coast Guard personnel and assets of District 5 are responsible for protecting 156,000 square miles of ocean, bays, rivers, wetlands and tidal marshes, in addition to the marine life that call these waters home. Enforcing the laws safeguarding this environment requires cooperation and imaginative tactics. Such skills are the forte of personnel on the 5th District staff such as Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Saunders.
Saunders is part of the district’s law enforcement branch, tasked with planning and implementing missions to prevent and to detect violations of environmental regulations. His office played a significant role in the task force that identified and that gathered evidence against the aforementioned illegal scallopers.
“The value that the 5th District provides is our ability to marshal a range of resources to enforce laws,” said Saunders. “We have experienced people and a variety of assets, like the new surveillance technology on the HC-130, which we can leverage as we plan missions. Moreover, the district staff has excellent working relationships with our peers in the Coast Guard’s 1st District and at other federal and state agencies, and this cooperation facilitates the accomplishment of our objectives.”