Enforcement Problems Hinder Effective Implementation of New Fishery Management Activities

CED-79-120: Published: Sep 12, 1979. Publicly Released: Sep 12, 1979.

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The Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 extended U.S. fisheries management to 200 miles from the territorial sea baseline. The Act authorizes management plans and implementing regulations to protect the fishing stocks from overfishing and to rebuild overfished stocks. It also prohibits foreign fishing in these waters if the domestic vessels have the capacity to catch the optimum yield of the fishery. The U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have joint responsibility for enforcing the regulations to implement these fishery management plans. Plans for about 70 species will be developed, and GAO reviewed two of the nine plans already in effect.

Better enforcement of present plans is needed and steps should be taken to avoid similar problems in plans not yet issued. Many domestic fishing regulations which are impractical, confusing, and constantly changing, hamper effective enforcement. The State regulations that exist have not been coordinated with Federal guidelines. It is an impossible task for Federal enforcement authorities to determine where the fish were caught which is necessary to prove a violation. The Coast Guard and the NMFS have not set specific goals or decided what methods and how much staff and equipment are needed to meet the goals. Some Coast Guard personnel are inadequately trained in identifying fish, and since there is a lack of personnel to enforce the law, they are frequently transferred to help out temporarily elsewhere. Coordination is lacking between the Coast Guard and the NMFS, as well as within the NMFS. Penalties have not been strong enough to deter violations; the profit to be gained far outweighs the penalty if violators are caught. Even though the number of foreign vessels fishing the U.S. waters has decreased, as has the volume of their catches since the law went into effect, enforcement could be more effective in many ways. Foreign countries are not being charged the full fee due on their catches since there is no system to verify the accuracy of catch statistics. The high turnover rate of observers and the long time needed for training hampers enforcement. Since the observers do not report violations until they return from sea, a delay of several months can occur.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Commerce should require that existing plans and regulations be revised to strengthen enforcement by (1) changing to dockside from at-sea enforcement wherever possible; (2) establishing landing limitations on a trip basis rather than a weekly basis; (3) establishing a single quota for each species regardless of where the catch was taken within the fishery conservation zone; and (4) limiting the number of nets a vessel can carry on board. Similar problems require that the practicality and feasability of enforcement strategies and approaches are considered in the approval process for all future plans, and that States be encouraged to regulate fishing in territorial waters and preemptive action be taken when their failure to do so prevents implementation of the Federal fishery management plans. The Secretary of Commerce should also direct NOAA to develop specific enforcement goals, devise strategies and techniques to achieve these goals, identify the resources necessary to carry out these strategies, and ensure that stiffer penalties are imposed with collection action being pursued rigorously. The Administrator of NOAA should be directed by the Secretary of Commerce to strengthen the foreign fishing enforcement program by (1) improving the observer program by reducing the turnover rate of the observers so that they can develop proficiency to perform both the biological sampling and the compliance function and by assuring that foreign violations identified by the observers are processed in a timely manner; (2) requiring that observer reports be used on a routine basis to verify the catch reported by foreign vessels; and (3) assuring that penalties for violations are assessed and collected promptly. The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Commandant of the Coast Guard to assure that personnel engaged in fishery enforcement receive adequate training, particularly in the identification and documentation of violations.

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