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NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement

Lovers of marine wildlife will find many kindred spirits at the NOAA Fisheries Service, Office of Law Enforcement (OLE), the government agency dedicated to enforcing laws to protect and regulate marine resources and their natural habitats. OLE agents and officers enforce numerous statutes and treaties that help conserve and protect marine resources, such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Lacey Act, the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. 
Headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, the agency has six divisional offices and 54 field offices, and maintains a presence in all coastal and marine areas of the United States and its territories. The agency’s enforcement activities deal primarily with fishery conservation and management; protection of endangered species, marine mammals, and marine sanctuaries; and enforcement of state, federal, tribal, and international laws regarding the import and export of marine wildlife.  
According to Dale Jones, OLE director, the agency has nearly 225 full-time employees including approximately 150 special agents and 20 enforcement officers. Special agents are criminal investigators, while officers are sworn law enforcement officers that work in uniform. Jones says that an analogy can be made between special agents and police detectives, while enforcement officers are more similar to patrol officers. “Most of our enforcement officers are stationed in Alaska, making contact with fishing vessels and enforcing individual fishing quotas,” he explains. “On the other hand, special agents are spread throughout the country. They investigate violations of the law and gather information on criminal activities.” 

"Headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, the agency has six divisional offices and 54 field offices, and maintains a presence in all coastal and marine areas of the United States and its territories"

“Our biggest mission area is domestic and commercial fishing,” says Jones. “We handle approximately 3,300 cases a year, ranging from minor investigations up to very complex situations.” 
Other investigative areas involve smuggling, illegal takes of endangered species, enforcement of sanctuary laws, and protection of marine mammals.  
Public awareness is important in ensuring compliance of federal and state laws. Special agents are involved in community outreach and public affairs to promote education and voluntary compliance. “Our outreach effort is growing because we realize that many people aren’t familiar with marine wildlife regulations,” Jones says. “We work with sea life centers, aquariums, and schools to promote our conservation message.”  
OLE also has a number of partnerships that are critical to its success, says Jones. The agency partners with the U.S. Coast Guard, Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Civil Air Patrol, and other enforcement agencies to conduct a variety of additional patrols and inspections. “Cooperative enforcement is very important to us,” he explains. “We tend to look favorably on prospective employees that can show concrete examples of collaboration with others.”  
International collaboration is also an important part of the agency’s growing role in global resource conservation. “We’re becoming more involved in illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing in the high seas, working with a lot of other countries,” Jones explains. “That’s because of growing pressure on highly migratory species, such as tuna and Patagonian toothfish.” 
Patagonian toothfish—commonly known as Chilean sea bass—is heavily fished because it’s highly profitable. “We work with countries such as Chile and South Africa to make sure current fishing regulations are enforced,” Jones continues. “And we also work with many regional fisheries management organizations.”  

"Since all of our offices are in coastal areas, they’re beautiful places to work,” says Jones. “Everyone that works here enjoys the water and the outdoors."

In addition to special agents and enforcement officers, OLE has a team of support personnel that includes program managers and administrative and technical staff, whom Jones describes as “the glue that holds the organization together.” For example, OLE’s technologists are working to expand the agency’s vessel monitoring system (VMS), which uses satellite tracking and networking technology to monitor and track approximately 5,000 fishing vessels. VMS allows the OLE to monitor compliance, track violators, and provide substantial evidence for prosecution. “Certain ships participate in the monitoring program based on the management plans of specific fisheries,” explains Jones. “Using GPS, we can track the movement of these vessels in near real-time.” 
Many new hires have law enforcement experience, or an educational background in law enforcement or criminal justice. Jones suggests that students interested in working for the agency look into degrees in environmental conservation—particularly marine conservation—and environmental law enforcement. Technical applicants need to have a background in data management and computer networking. 
Jobs at OLE are regularly posted on, and that the agency recruits and hires throughout the year, according to Jones. Each summer, it hires at least two interns in its headquarters office and one in each regional office. “The intern program is a good way for us to recruit, and we usually hire four or five agents each year through that program,” adds Jones.  
As soon as they’re hired, employees are provided with job-specific training. Special agents take criminal investigation courses designed to provide traditional investigative law enforcement skills and expertise in criminal human behavior, modern technology, law, and other approaches to effective law enforcement. Courses are taught in fraud investigation, undercover operations, electronic surveillance, and advanced interrogation.  
Enforcement officers attend a program in police training designed for natural resource management agencies, emphasizing the patrol functions of enforcement in a natural resource environment. They receive training in interviewing, suspect control, arrest techniques, driving skills, law, firearms, narcotics, and communications.  
Jones says that a fierce dedication to marine resource conservation is the primary common trait of employees. “Everyone has love and respect for our natural resources and a passion for conservation,” he explains.  
The prime location of OLE’s field offices is another bonus for employees. “Since all of our offices are in coastal areas, they’re beautiful places to work,” says Jones. “Everyone that works here enjoys the water and the outdoors.” 

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This project is supported, in part, by the NationalScience Foundation.  Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation .