The U.S. Coast Guard lived up to its motto of being “Always Ready” in 2011 – from interdicting the first drug sub in Caribbean waters to providing humanitarian relief to a drought-stricken island nation, Coast Guard crews had a remarkable year. As 2011 winds down, Compass brings to you “Your Coast Guard in 2011” – a series highlighting the top stories, missions and cases from around the nation. Visit us every day this week to read about each district and the extraordinary men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Today’s story comes from the 5th Coast Guard District and showcases the important role Coast Guard crews play in safeguarding our nation’s living marine resources.
Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class John D. Miller.
In February, a Coast Guard airplane circled high off the coast of New Jersey. Scallopers were suspected of illegally fishing in a closed area, damaging the recovery of Hudson Canyon’s scallop population. However, locating and gathering evidence against them in a large, exposed area presented challenges.
“For years, the idea of building fisheries enforcement cases solely from an air asset was difficult,” explained Lt. Gregory M. Rehlender, the law enforcement and living marine resources division chief at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C.
The airplane’s new integrated technology “opened up a tremendous intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability,” said Rehlender.
The combination of enhanced airplane capability and aircrew vigilance recently resulted in four successful prosecutions of vessels illegally fishing that not only stopped poachers, but served as a deterrent for others promoting fairness in an industry that generates approximately $50 million annually in landings and supports many small businesses.
Stretching from mid-New Jersey and south Pennsylvania through North Carolina, the people and assets of the district are responsible for protecting an area of more than 156,000 square miles, the coastal public, mariners and commerce in the region – in addition to the marine life that call those waters home. The district’s law enforcement branch, tasked with preventing and detecting violations of environmental regulations, played a significant role in the task force that gathered evidence against the illegal scallopers.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and the 5th District cooperate in another environmental protection effort through Operation Right Speed – an education and enforcement activity protecting the fragile North Atlantic right whale population. Only 300 to 400 North Atlantic right whales are estimated to remain, and collisions with ships pose a threat to this critically endangered species.
To prevent these collisions, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service created mandatory speed restriction zones in mid-Atlantic waters from November to April. Notifying mariners when right whales are sighted is usually enough to make captains slow down. However, if they do not, Coast Guard crews can help ensure compliance.
“The 5th District’s role in Operation Right Speed has had tangible results in safeguarding the right whales’ recovery,” said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Saunders, deputy chief of the district’s law enforcement branch. “More than 490 vessels have been educated on the seasonal management areas. The district’s law enforcement efforts are also responsible for 83 percent of the discrepancies relating to speeding vessels in these areas.”
In addition to Operation Right Speed, the district also works to preserve a different maritime resource – history. The living marine resources division is responsible for an initiative designed to preserve the integrity of shipwrecks off North Carolina’s Outer Banks, an area known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
The area attracts divers, most of who respect these sites and leave them untouched. However, some divers pry off pieces for souvenirs. Coast Guard crews routinely patrol the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, where the Civil War ironclad rests, but new endeavors extend this security to nearby sites. The men and women of the 5th District work with local dive operators to educate them on the importance of preserving these sites and also have the authority to board and search dive vessels for suspected historical artifacts.
While the living marine resources mission may not be the first one people associate with the Coast Guard, it is just one more example illustrating the service’s diverse responsibilities. By combining the Coast Guard’s diverse authorities with cutting-edge vessel, aircraft and surveillance technology, the Coast Guard provides valuable results for the nation in an efficient and effective manner.