The U.S. Coast Guard, National Security, and Fisheries Law Enforcement

By Bouziane, Michele | Naval War College Review, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

The U.S. Coast Guard, National Security, and Fisheries Law Enforcement


Bouziane, Michele, Naval War College Review


THE MISSIONS AND TASKS OF THE United States Coast Guard include maritime environmental protection, coastal defense, port safety and security, search and rescue, and boating safety.1 In addition, among U.S. military agencies, it has the primary mandate for the enforcement of maritime laws and treaties.2 This mission has made the Coast Guard a highly visible U.S. presence in the world; it can be argued, in fact, that the service is an extension of the U.S. diplomatic corps.

This is nowhere more the case than with respect to fisheries, an area that combines law enforcement and national security matters at the highest level. Presidential Decision Directive NSC-36 asserts "our country's important environmental, national security, and economic interests in sustainable management of ocean resources... . The United States will show domestic and international leadership on sustainable management of the world's fisheries. Fish are increasingly important as a food source.... Yet many fisheries are already exploited at or beyond sustainable levels.... Coastal states [like the United States] have the most responsibility for fisheries and coastal zone management, as 90 percent of the world's fish catch takes place within the 200-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs)."3 President William J. Clinton has stated that the Fisheries Act of 1995 "demonstrates the extent to which the United States is involved, and must remain involved, in international initiatives with global impact."4 The U.S. Coast Guard is at the forefront of this involvement; for example, in most circumstances it consults the Department of State when it seeks to board a foreign-flag vessel.5

This essay will explore the U.S. Coast Guard's activities in this combined realm of fisheries protection and national security, through the enforcement of laws, regulations, and treaties. First, however, some background is necessary, under both rubrics.

Fish Facts-and National Security Redefined

"The United States ranked fifth in the world for fisheries landings as reported by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in 1993, its latest survey year. The U.S. catch was 5.9% of the world's total catch of marine and freshwater fisheries products. The FAO survey also ranked the United States second in value for imports as well as exports of these products."6 In 1994, the U.S. landed 4.7 million metric tons, valued at $3.8 billion; this represents an increase in value of 11 percent since 1993, even though volume was down from six million metric tons in that year. In 1993, the United States imported 5.6 billion pounds of edible and industrial commercial fishery products; in 1994, imports totalled 5.8 billion pounds; and in 1995, imports made up 45.8 percent of the total 19.3 billion pounds landed. There are some 94,800 commercial fishing vessels in the United States.7 Commercial fisheries contribute approximately $50 billion annually to the nation's economy, providing employment for fishermen, suppliers, and processors, and lending identity to hundreds of coastal communities.8

As is clear from these statistics and those of Table 1 and Figure 1, the U.S. commercial fishing industry is important to the U.S. economy and the American people. Today, however, as noted above, that industry is threatened: 40 percent of U.S. stocks are overfished, and, according to the FAO, about 70 percent of the world's fish stocks are either fully or heavily exploited, overexploited, depleted, or only slowly recovering.9

This threat is an urgent one for the post-Cold War era, in which national security is being to some extent redefined in economic terms.lo The problem of dwindling fish populations in the world's oceans has produced numerous disputes-among nations as well as among fishermen.ll In the words of a mid-grade U.S. naval officer, "The depletion of maritime resources is a direct threat to coastal nations' economic security. To counter the threat they have begun to extend control beyond the EEZ. …

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