The Pointy End of Hook: Fisheries Policy and the Importance of At-Sea Enforcement

Eric Quigley is a graduate student in the Coastal and Ocean Policy Program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.  He graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 2006 with a BS in Management.  Currently, he is an active duty Officer in the U.S. Coast Guard with six years of at-sea experience aboard three ships enforcing Federal and multi-national laws and treaties including, leading approximately 120 fisheries enforcement vessel boardings in the Gulf of Mexico and Western and Central Pacific Ocean.


Illegal incursions in the United States Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) increased by 13% from 2014-2015.  The increase reflects a general trend over recent years.  The continued illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing in US waters have led the UN Food and Agricultural Organization and the US President to encourage development of new frameworks to improve effective management these resources.  A common ethical perspective holds that despite the manner by which a fish is caught (legal or illegal), once brought to shore fishermen should bring the animal to market for consumption.

The question then arises, how does society, or even just the US, curb illegal fishing while bringing illegally caught fish to market remains an acceptable practice?

US Exclusive Economic Zones
The Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act of 1976 established an EEZ extending 200 nautical miles from the coast of the United States and its territories- an area encompassing approximately 3.4 million square nautical miles.  Congress enacted the legislation in response to negative impacts on the U.S. economy and U.S. fishing fleet financial interests by foreign fishing vessels exploiting fish stocks in close proximity to the U.S.  In 1997 Congress amended The Act to include fish stock rebuilding and sustainability mandates as policy goals; and it reauthorized The Act in 2007.

The ability to effectively enforce the related laws, rules, and regulations of a policy is critical to policy success.  Although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) implements the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the U.S. Coast Guard enforces the laws resulting from the Act.  That is, the Coast Guard enforces the sovereignty of the US EEZ, which in turn, supports NOAA’s goals of economic prosperity and food security through ocean biological sustainability. 

However, fisheries enforcement is only one of 11 Coast Guard statutory missions.  The other 10 missions, specifically, homeland security, search and rescue and drug enforcement, requires some of the same resources as fisheries protection but promise visually attractive benefits.  For instance, in 2015 the Coast Guard saved 3,500 lives at sea and seized 179 metric tons of drugs worth $4.9 billion.  Each event is an opportunity for media attention thereby overshadowing the fisheries protection activities which are comparatively, less sensational. 

Enforcing regulations that protect resources over the open ocean and in remote areas is a costly endeavor. Hourly rates to operate appropriate Coast Guard ships range from $5,000 to nearly $30,000, and surveillance aircraft cost between $10,000 and $20,000.  The Coast Guard budget of $10B is comparatively small to other agencies such as the US Navy at $127B, US Marine Corps at $22B and the NYPD at $4.8B (NYPD has a similar number of personnel to the USCG) and much of this goes towards the Coast Guard's other “sexy” missions rather than fisheries protection. 

The social and economic benefits from fishery sustainability and national security far outweigh the fiscal costs of Coast Guard operations.  According to budget documents for the Coast Guard, the fisheries industry contributes $186 billion and 2 million jobs to the economy annually.  

Although those numbers may seem large, the US imports upwards of 90% of our seafood, approximately 5.3 million pounds worth approximately $18 billion, and 20% of the seafood we consume is illegally caught.  The World Wildlife Fund estimates that worldwide, $23.5 billion worth of seafood is illegally caught annually.

As nations such as, Indonesia and Argentina, secure their EEZs and take action against illegal fishers new areas for exploitation will become targeted.   The US, with the world's largest EEZ, is at increased risk of having our resources stolen, impacting our economic well-being as well as our fisheries health.  Implementing more stringent policies is a start, however, in order to ensure the laws are followed, at-sea enforcement and deterrence is critical for ultimate policy success.


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