Aug. 4, 2015 marks the 225th birthday of the United States Coast Guard. Throughout the year, we’ll be unveiling a series of blog posts and other events that mark this important milestone. Stay tuned to learn more about the Coast Guard’s 225 years of Service to Nation and join the celebration! Today, we share the history of the Coast Guard’s living marine resources mission.
Written by Chris Havern with contributions from Steven Tucker
When most people think about the Coast Guard’s living marine resources mission, they probably think about Coast Guard crews rescuing entangled turtles or transporting sick or injured sea mammals. Those activities are important and mark the Coast Guard’s support for recovery of protected species and a resilient ocean environment. However, in actuality, the living marine resources program is much broader.
The LMR mission, one of the Coast Guard’s 11 statutory missions established by Congress, hasn’t always focused on the well being of marine animals. In fact, the mission traces its roots back to 1822. Just three years after the territory of Florida was ceded to the United States by Spain, the Revenue Cutter Service was ordered to protect another species entirely – the Federal timber reserves. There were indications that these timber resources were being harvested for private sale, and were deemed a national priority because the live oak served as premium building material for the nascent Continental Navy.
Nearly 50 years later, the mission continued to grow in prominence with the initiation of the Bearing Sea patrol in 1879. At that time, well before the adoption of what are today known as “Exclusive Economic Zones”, various U.S. interests and foreign nations were cashing in on the bountiful stocks of the Northern latitudes. This patrol aimed to monitor harvest of whales and otters and to enforce regulations for the seal rookeries in the territory of Alaska in order to thwart illegal pelagic sealing that threatened the viability of the population.
Ten years later, the U.S. Life Saving Service, one of the services that merged into what is today known as the Coast Guard, received an additional request from the Smithsonian Institute. The Life Saving stations scattered along the coastlines were asked to record data about dead marine mammals, specifically “whales, porpoises, blackfish grampuses, and the various other forms of the whale family,” encountered during shore patrol. Further, according to correspondence between the Smithsonian Institute and the U.S. Life Saving Service, the Institute requested that the service members collect, package and send any “unknown or unidentified marine monsters, such as might possibly suggest the idea of the far-famed ‘sea-serpent.’”
Just a year later, the Revenue Cutter Service was formally tasked with ensuring the preservation of fur seals in Alaska, and beginning Sept. 1, 1884, young Revenue Cuter Service officers were stationed on Pribiloff Island to monitor legal harvest and to protect the seal stock from illegal hunting. In the course of these duties Revenue Cutters and the officers on board provided a myriad of services. Cutters with physicians on board would extend port calls and resupply stops in order to render care to local populations. The captain of the vessel would, at times, serve as a magistrate ruling on disputes and adjudicating charges of illegal or otherwise undesirable conduct among members of the most remote community. These actions required that the service build solid competencies for operating in harsh arctic conditions, setting the stage for the epic Overland Expedition to provide relief for crews of whaling vessels caught and icebound in treacherous circumstances.
As the Coast Guard’s marine environmental portfolio grew to include other work such as protecting waterways from oil spills and illegal dumping, the Coast Guard had to make adjustments to its organizational structure to ensure optimal preparedness and effectiveness across increasingly complex and demanding roles.
The spirit of those early days when the Revenue Cutter Service was plying icy seas carries forward to this day and informs Ocean Steward, the Coast Guard’s framework for Marine Protected Resources.
Throughout the early 20th century, the Coast Guard continued to answer the nation’s call to protect imperiled marine species, and was given additional authority under the Endangered Species Act of 1972. In keeping with its broader authorities, the Coast Guard also enforces provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and this progressive accretion of duties continued with the promulgation of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. As sites were designated, implementation of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act garnered Congressional attention and in 1993, the Secretaries of Transportation and Commerce delivered the results of a joint report that included an assessment of Coast Guard enforcement forecasts for existing sites.
Since that time, the extent of ocean federally designated as a National Marine Sanctuary or Marine National Monument has grown enormously from approximately 5,500 square nautical miles in 1990 to nearly 575,000 square nautical miles today. This additional attention to seascapes of special national significance bodes well for the resilience of species found there. It is also emblematic of heightened demand for a strong Coast Guard presence and consistent enforcement and conservation activities at sea—at times in very remote areas.
While Federal management of marine protected areas was expanding, the prospect of enforcing and complying with the full complement of environmental safeguards for ocean resources had implications for so many Coast Guard programs, that a protected living marine resources initiative was established as an element of the LMR mission. This program and its staff were put in place to work across the various Coast Guard offices and tiers of command with an eye toward ensuring effective enforcement of protective laws and regulations at-sea, and supporting the Coast Guard’s conformance to those aspects of the laws applicable to Coast Guard operations.
Another major milestone for the Coast Guard’s living marine resource mission came with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976. While the Coast Guard and its antecedents has long been involved in enforcement of regulations for harvesting commercially viable fish, the Act marked a turning point both in the underpinnings of how our nation’s fisheries are managed and in the stakes of compliant and non-compliant behavior. The LMR mission is one of the Coast Guard’s longest standing continuous operational activities, and today LMR enforcement results in approximately 6,000 boardings of vessels at sea to check for compliance with applicable fishery and protected species regulations. Ensuring a level playing field among fishers and enforcing regulations for sustainable management of the nation’s stocks, protecting the U.S. exclusive economic zone from illegal foreign fishing and responding to entanglements and patrolling our National Marine Sanctuaries and Marine National Monuments are all important facets of today’s LMR program.
In addition to activities that ensure a level playing field for commercial fishers, the Coast Guard also protects resources in the nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone from encroachment by foreign fishing vessels and even supports the work of partner nations to enforce sustainable fisheries laws and international fisheries agreements in remote reaches of the ocean and on the high seas.
As the Nation’s environmental and Homeland Security priorities continue to evolve, the Coast Guard’s living marine resources mission will continue to evolve in order to meet shifting demands. Throughout all the changes, however, one thing will remain certain: the Coast Guard will remain ‘Semper Paratus’ to ensure safety, security and stewardship- protecting life, not only at sea, but within the sea as well.
Now that you’ve learned all about the Coast Guard’s living marine resources mission from inception to present day, stick around to learn about the remaining Coast Guard missions in the coming weeks!