Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page



William D. Chappell
Operational Law Enforcement Division
US Coast Guard Headquarters
Washington, D.C., USA


The Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 (MFCMA), enacted on 13 April 1976, declared a United States Fishery Conservation Zone (FCZ) from the seaward edge of the territorial sea out to 200 miles from the baseline (200-mile limit) for exclusive US management of fisheries except highly migratory species (tuna). It restricted but did not entirely eliminate foreign fishing. The MFCMA also specified standards to manage both foreign and domestic fisheries and designated Regional Fishery Management Councils to do the actual management. It designated the Department of Commerce/National Marine Fisheries Service to manage the fisheries on the Federal level, and designated the National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Coast Guard jointly to enforce the MFCMA and its regulations. These enforcement powers may be delegated to the States for enforcement on domestic vessels.


The eight Regional Fishery Management Councils created by the MFCMA manage the fisheries within their area, subject to the approval of the Secretary of Commerce. Each council issues fishery management plans controlling both foreign and domestic fishing for each fishery in need of regulation. Two or more councils may issue joint plans when stocks cross regional boundaries. The National Marine Fisheries Service issues regulations for approved fishery management plans which cover the management and enforcement aspects of the fishery. These regulations in turn are enforced jointly by the National Marine Fisheries Service and US Coast Guard. Management of the domestic and, to a lesser extent, the foreign fisheries are influenced by the makeup of the councils. The voting members of the councils are made up of the National Marine Fisheries Service Regional Director, the head of the State law enforcement agency responsible for fisheries management in each State represented on the council, and members of the fishing industry and scientific community nominated by the State Governors and appointed by the Secretary of Commerce. Non-voting members of the council include the local US Coast Guard District or Area Commander, the US Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director and a representative of the Department of State. This membership must resolve hard questions concerning biological, technological, economic, social and political factors to manage the fisheries. They must balance the biological requirements to maintain or rebuild the fishery against the technology involved in catching the fish along with the economic, social and political factors driving the fishery.

Once conservation goals have been set in a fishery, management measures must be considered. They should respond to the scientific data requirements to manage the fishery, be biologically sound and be compatible with the technology used in the fishery. They should minimize their intrusiveness into the fishing economy and should address sociological requirements to preserve or improve the local society. They should minimize enforcement requirements consistent with achieving management measures. Finally, they should minimize the costs of management in order to maximize benefits to society.

Fishery management measures may be grouped into three areas: quotas, permits (licences) and effort restrictions. United States fisheries management under the MFCMA includes elements of all of these. Quotas on the overall catch and specific allocations to countries are used in the foreign fisheries. Many domestic fisheries also have quotas limiting catch. With the notable exception of foreign fisheries, United States quota restrictions are primarily enforced from dockside or through statistical sampling. The United States uses permits or licences primarily as a means of identification of fishing vessels. Only in a few specific domestic fisheries have they been used to restrict effort. Permits can be considered as a part of the third group of measures, effort restrictions. They are used in all fisheries in their many forms.

Enforcement is the means to maintain this balance between the biological and the other factors affecting a fishery. Because of the variation of these factors among the stocks and the fisheries, some management measures work better than others for a specific fishery. The application of effort restrictions as a part of managing the fisheries will be discussed.


Managers, as previously stated, must consider many factors when they decide on management measures. In deciding on effort restrictions they must consider all the aspects of a fishery if they are to realize the full benefits of their effort. One measure may not be as sound as another biologically. The second measure may require more enforcement than the first due to the ease by which it is avoided. More enforcement means increased cost and the increased cost must be weighed against the benefit of the effort restriction. The availability of resources and their costs to enforce a certain measure is also a major factor in determining the appropriate measures to use.

Effort restrictions can be broken down into several general categories. A combination of several effort restrictions may apply to any one fishery as necessary to effectively manage it. No one requirement is a pre-requisite for another. More complete descriptions and some of the advantages and disadvantages are discussed in succeeding sections.

Effort restrictions used on both foreign and domestic fishing vessels by the United States fall into the following categories:

Permits or Licences

Reports and Statistical Record-Keeping

Gear Reporting and Marking Requirements

Closures of an area by period, species or gear

Seasons by area, species or gear

Gear Restrictions

Size/Sex Restrictions

Prohibited Species Retention

Facilitation of Enforcement Provisions


Foreign vessels fishing within the FCZ of the United States are subject to very specific requirements. A nation must conclude an international fisheries agreement with the United States prior to its vessels being allowed to fish in the FCZ. This agreement requires the nation and its vessels to comply with appropriate regulations; allow boardings, inspections, searches and seizures by US enforcement officers; post permits on each vessel; allow transponders and observers on board all vessels; maintain an agent in the United States for service of legal documents and assessments of fines; and pay appropriate fees.

The permit (or licence) issued to each foreign fishing vessel specifies in what fishery it may conduct operations and what kind of operations it may conduct. Fishing operations are catching, processing, support (cargo and personnel transfer) and joint venture (over-the-side receipt of fish from US catcher vessels). The permit also serves as an agreement by the vessel to abide by the terms of the fisheries agreement, the fishing regulations and any other special terms attached to the permit.

Each vessel must keep records and make reports regarding its catch and movements. Catch reports are used in quota management but do contain information on movement of the vessel. These reports help to determine the concentration of fishing activity and may determine the vessel's presence in a closed area.

Foreign vessels must identify themselves by their International Radio Call Sign marked on the sides and a weather deck of the ship to allow easy identification by enforcement aircraft or vessels. Marking also applies to fishing gear not attached to the vessel such as longlines or crab pots. Each vessel must monitor and avoid the locations of US fixed gear (lobster traps, crab pots or other gear attached to the bottom), which are broadcast by radio in notices to fishermen, and must avoid conflicts with fixed gear wherever found. Each vessel must report any gear brought up in a trawl or any conflict with another vessel's gear.

Closures are the most pervasive effort restriction used in the United States. Closures should be defined as a prohibition on fishing in a certain area within a fishery for a period of time. The closure can be year around or for only a short time. The closure can be limited to retention of certain species (i.e., herring or flounder) or certain types of gear (i.e., trawling or longlining). The largest closures off the United States are those prohibiting foreign vessels from catching fish within 12 nautical miles of the continental United States. Closures exist in the Gulf of Mexico to protect coral reefs, in the Gulf of Alaska to prevent gear conflicts with the US crab boats, in Bristol Bay, off Alaska, to protect young crab and halibut, and off the Columbia River of Oregon and Washington, to protect migrating salmon and allow recreational fishing. They can be as small as a few square miles or large as many thousands of square miles.

Seasons are the inverse of closures. They open an otherwise closed area to fishing for a portion of a year. The season may affect the entire fishery or a sub-area of the fishery. It might also apply to fishing for a particular species or with a type of gear (i.e., bottom trawling). A fishing season exists for active trawling within the Eastern Pacific FCZ off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California from 1 June until 1 November for each year. The five fishing areas off the Atlantic should be considered seasonal.

Gear restrictions may be defined as any management requirement which regulates the devices used to catch fish. Foreign gear restrictions include trawl mesh sizes in the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific, and hook size for shark fishing in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Bottom trawling is also prohibited at certain times in the Eastern Pacific, Western Atlantic and Gulf of Alaska.

Size and sex restrictions on foreign catch apply only in two specific cases. Regulations for the Tanner crab fishery in the Bering Sea prohibited the retention of female Tanner crabs or any crab of the species, Chinocetes bairdi, caught south of 58°N latitude. This restriction was made moot after 1980 when no more foreign quotas for Tanner crab were offered because of increased domestic catch. Canadian and US longline vessels fishing for halibut under the International Pacific Halibut Convention are not allowed to retain halibut under a minimum size.

The non-retention of prohibited species by foreign vessels remains an important element in US fisheries management. Besides lobster, crab and other bottom dwelling marine animals protected under previous US law, prohibited species now include salmon, halibut, Pacific herring and any other species for which a vessel does not have an allocation. These species must be returned to the sea immediately regardless of condition. Billfish caught incidentally by longline vessels fishing for tuna must be released by cutting the line to the hook before the fish is removed from the water.

Foreign vessels must conform with regulations which facilitate enforcement operations. These requirements include stopping or going slowly to allow a small boat to come alongside, providing a ladder, handline and illumination to allow the boarding officers to board safely and taking other actions to facilitate boardings and inspection. Vessels must guard the radio frequencies of 2182 Khz and 500 Khz daily between 2000 and 2030 GMT when they have the capability.


Effort restrictions on domestic fishing vessels are similar to those on foreign vessels but the specific regulations vary widely from fishery to fishery. United States domestic fishing operations are still relatively simple when compared to foreign operations but are comparable biologically and technically. However, economic, social and political factors often over-shadow the other factors and control the management of the domestic fishery.

Not all domestic fisheries require vessels to have permits. They have been instituted only where permits are necessary for statistical purposes or to limit entry into the fishery. The surf clam and ocean quahog fishery off the mid-Atlantic States of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia is the only fishery which has limited entry. There has been a moratorium on new vessels in this fishery since 1977, due to over-capitalization and depletion of the resource.

Record-keeping and reports vary from specific log-keeping requirements for all vessels to voluntary reporting. There is a trend in new fisheries regimes toward mandatory collection of statistics from representative samples of fishermen rather than log-books for everyone. Fisheries statisticians collect data without providing access to enforcement personnel. This preserves the confidentiality of the fishing area while encouraging honest statistical reporting.

The only reporting requirements for domestic vessels are in the surf clam and ocean quahog fishery. A vessel operator must report losing a day of fishing to bad weather if he wishes to claim another day of fishing. A proposed rule would require domestic vessel fishing in the spiny lobster fishery of the Western Pacific Ocean to report intended landings of spiny lobster outside the State of Hawaii in order for inspectors to observe the catch. The management councils continue to debate mandatory reporting of fixed gear such as lobster pots but no regulations have been issued.

Most domestic fisheries regulations require a vessel in the fishery to be marked, usually with its Official Number (a hull identification number). A vessel under five net tons must be identified by a State registration number. All fisheries that require permits require vessel marking. Fixed gear is also required to be marked above the surface to help identification.

Domestic fishing closures are generally smaller than those for foreign closures. They range from haddock spawning closures for three months on Georges Bank in the Atlantic to areas closed to surf clam and ocean quahog fishing because of pollution in the Atlantic off New Jersey. Other closures prevent domestic gear conflicts, such as one in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida separating stone crab fishermen fishing with pots from shrimp trawlers.

Several fisheries use seasons as their primary management measure. The Alaska and Eastern Pacific (coasts of Washington, Oregon and California) salmon fisheries, the Pacific halibut and the Tanner crab fisheries use seasons and break the fishery into areas to allow for closures during the seasons. The northern anchovy fishery of California and the stone crab fishery off western Florida in the Gulf of Mexico also have seasons.

There are many different kinds of gear restrictions in the domestic fisheries. The most familiar are mesh size restrictions in the groundfish fisheries. The Atlantic groundfish fishery has a large mesh area where small mesh nets can be used only by special arrangement, although they can still be on board. Traps or pots are the only gear allowed to take crab and spiny lobster. All traps must have degradable escape panels which disintegrate after a period of time if the trap is lost. Tanner crab pots must also have escape rings for under-sized crabs. Some salmon may only be taken by hook and line and in some cases only with barbless hooks. Powered retrieval gear is also restricted. Halibut may only be taken by longlines.

Size and sex restrictions vary according to the fishery. The Atlantic groundfish, salmon, halibut, spiny lobster and several proposed fisheries have size restrictions for both recreational and commercial catches. Bag limits, considered a form of quota, also limit recreational fishing. Size limits and/or meat counts apply in the scallop and the surf clam and ocean quahog fisheries. Female and under-sized Tanner crab must be returned to the sea when caught. Only one claw from each stone crab may be taken and the crab itself returned to the sea. Egg laden or “berried” female spiny lobsters must also be returned.

Some species, because of their value, their small quotas, and the effort restrictions in their fisheries, are considered a prohibited catch for any gear except for those specifically authorized. These species are salmon, halibut and Tanner crab. They must be returned to the sea immediately with a minimum of injury when caught by unauthorized gear.

Domestic fishing vessels must facilitate enforcement like foreign vessels. Since there is usually no language barrier, the normal method of communicating with domestic vessels is by VHF-FM radio rather than by signal lights or flags. Signal lights or flag provisions are retained for vessels with no radio or otherwise refusing to stop. Other facilitations of enforcement restrictions are simplified for the small domestic vessels.


After determining what effort restrictions might be appropriate to a fishery, the mode of enforcement must be considered. Whether or not the measure can be enforced by dockside inspections, observers on the vessels, boardings from boats or ships or aircraft over-flights becomes critically important when it comes time to pay the enforcement bills. Unfortunately, cheaper enforcement modes do not lend themselves well to enforcement of effort restrictions.

The cost of different enforcement modes varies enormously. Costs of United States resources are listed as comparisons. They demonstrate the importance of carefully determining the management measures used in a fishery.

Some modes are not as effective as others in enforcing effort restrictions. Their capabilities must be considered in light of their ability to perform law enforcement tasks. These tasks can be defined as surveillance, detection, identification, classification and apprehension.

ResourceCost 1
Fishing Vessel Observer
on board the vessel
per 8-hour day
National Marine Fisheries Service Agent
dockside inspection
per 8-hour day
Small boat
under 53 ft (16 m)
per 8-hour day
US Coast Guard Patrol Boat
95 ft (29 m)
per 24-hour day
US Coast Guard Medium-Endurance Cutter
180–210 ft (54.9–64 m)
per 24-hour day
US Coast Guard High-Endurance Cutter
311–378 ft (91.8–115.3 m)
per 24-hour day
Charter Aircraft
cruising speed of 150 knots for about 4 hrs
per hour
US Coast Guard Medium-Range Recovery Helicopter (HH-3F)
cruising speed of 126 knots for 3 hrs 45 mins
per hour
US Coast Guard Long-Range Search Aircraft (HC-130H)
cruising speed of 300 knots for 11 hrs
per hour

1 Costs are average estimates for Fiscal Year 1982 (1 October 1981 to 30 September 1982)

Surveillance - is the amount and frequency of enforcement coverage of the fisheries area. Since the entire FCZ covers 2.2 million square miles, this task is significant. The Coast Guard has adopted a concept of patrolling the fisheries only in certain areas and at certain times of the year when fishermen operate in only those areas. While this approach does not apply to highly migratory species such as tuna, and therefore tuna longliners, it enables concentration of effort in a much smaller area of about 459,000 square miles. Surveillance of even this area is best accomplished by aircraft, as vessels are too slow for effective coverage. Satellite coverage could significantly improve efficiency at some unknown cost.

Detection and identification are closely related. Detection is the probability of locating a vessel in the patrol area. Identification of the vessel includes determining the type of vessel (i.e., fishing, non-fishing, catcher, processor), its nationality and its name or call sign. Aircraft are also best at performing this task in good weather and during daylight; however, vessels are also very good at doing this, particularly in darkness or bad weather. Patrol and small boats are also useful. Improved night vision devices and electronic sensors such as infra-red radar and side-looking radar can significantly improve aircraft and vessel performance. Transponders activated by a satellite or aircraft and fishing vessel transmit terminals transmitting via satellite have the potential for greatly improved detection and identification of vessels cooperating by having the devices on board.

Classification - is determining the vessel's actions and if there has been a violation. The ability of an enforcement mode to classify a violation depends on the effort restriction being enforced. Aircraft can classify most closed area and season violations as well as some marking and gear restrictions but cannot determine size, sex or prohibited species restrictions. Observers can classify all of these violations but may have difficulty catching short incursions into closed areas or covert retention of prohibited species due to their primary role as data collectors. They cannot be realistically employed on domestic vessels. Dockside enforcement agents can only classify those violations which apply everywhere, such as general gear or size/sex restrictions. Vessels have the ability to do all these things plus the possibility of apprehending the violator.

Apprehension - is notification and/or seizure or arrest of the violator. Citations (written warnings) and violations (civil penalty actions) can be initiated from reports by aircraft or observers but not directly delivered to the vessel. Only enforcement officers boarding from ships or boats and enforcement agents boarding from dockside can directly issue Citations, initiate Violations, arrest a person or seize a vessel. This immediate action is of value in deterring future violations, although it has yet to be quantified.


There are specific problems in determining the amount of enforcement needed for effort restrictions. The first is the economic incentive to violate the restriction. If a lot of money can be made with a low risk or even a high risk of short duration, such as fishing in closed areas, more resources are needed than for other restrictions of a similar nature in other fisheries. The costs of enforcement is always a factor. Expensive and scarce resources should not be squandered on fisheries which are of little economic or social value. The following examples give a better feel for the effectiveness and problems with effort restrictions.

Permits or licences are necessary for foreign vessels if they are to be controlled. Neither quota nor effort limitations on foreign vessels can be effective if their numbers are unknown. The presence of unpermitted vessels can only be discovered by vessels or aircraft.

Limits on the number of days a vessel may fish requires a mandatory check-in/check-out system with daily dissemination of data to field units. This system requires extensive communications facilities. Foreign vessels currently operate under a similar but less restrictive system. Verification is only possibly through enforcement efforts by vessels and aircraft.

Vessel and gear marking greatly facilitates fishing vessel identification by cutters and aircraft. This reduces enforcement costs by saving time and fuel and enables fishing vessels not requiring boarding to continue fishing unimpeded.

Closed areas and seasons are effective but enforcement resource requirements can vary dramatically for different fisheries. Requirements are much higher for effective enforcement in areas in which a short stay can catch enough fish to make the risk acceptable. There must be sufficient enforcement presence to insure the perception of being apprehended remains high. At-sea enforcement by vessels and aircraft is therefore mandatory. Observers can detect but not stop closed area and season violations for the vessels they are on.

Restricting fishing to daylight only can be an effective management tool but may require a high level of sophisticated at-sea enforcement. Since not all contacts at night are necessarily fishing, they must be identified by some other means such as forward-looking infra-red radar (FLIR), night-vision devices, or closing and identifying each contact by spotlight; the latter being particularly unacceptable to all vessels.

Assigning each vessel a specific fishing time increases enforcement requirements, as each contact must be identified. If vessels can vary their daily fishing times, a 24-hour real-time check is required, with close monitoring by at-sea enforcement; a very expensive measure.

Gear soak times limiting the time gear may remain in the water untended, unless at the beginning or end of a season, are generally unrealistic, as they require dedicated resources, i.e., a policeman patrolling a 2-hour parking area and checking each car every 15 minutes. This must be done by boats and vessels at sea.

Limits on the number of traps or pots allowed to be fished present similar problems to soak times, since each trap must be counted and positively identified. Limits on numbers of pots in a string are also difficult to enforce without an on-scene presence, as strings are easily ganged together. Conversely, marking of pots and length of string requirements are easily enforced at sea, if the strings and pots are identified on the buoy.

Trawl mesh-size or gear-type restrictions are very enforceable as long as the regulations are understandable; but when restrictions vary by area and vessels are allowed to carry less restrictive gear on board while in a restricted area, enforcement becomes complicated. A better approach would be to totally prohibit the illegal gear. This would allow dockside enforcement instead of requiring all enforcement to be at sea.

Size, sex and prohibited species retention restrictions should be effective throughout the fishing area. This allows for dockside inspection and provides much less incentive to land under-sized and prohibited catch.

Facilitation of enforcement regulations are not effort restrictions in themselves. They do provide a standard procedure enabling enforcement officers to safely do the job and fishing vessels to properly comply when an enforcement vessel comes alongside.


Effort restrictions can be effective measures for fisheries enforcement. They can also be very expensive. They are more direct than quota enforcement and simplify enforcement when properly applied. Managers must carefully evaluate effort restrictions for their costs versus benefits to insure efficient regulations. When used this way they become outstanding management measures.


FLEPM II: 1980 A planning model for evaluating alternative enforcement strategies. Alexandria, Virginia, Santa Fe Corporation

Hayes, R.M. and J.J. Murray, Application of a satellite-tracked fishing vessel transmit terminal to fisheries management and science. NAFO Sci.Counc.Stud., (4):77–83

Joers, A.W., 1973 International regulation of marine fisheries. London, Fishing News (Books) Ltd.

U.S. Coast Guard, 1976 Study of Coast Guard enforcement of 200-mile Fishery Conservation Zone. Washington, D.C., US Coast Guard

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page