When Uncle Sam’s “Fish Cops” Reel in a Suspect, He’s Usually a Keeper

Agents of the National Marine Fisheries Service often work undercover gathering the evidence needed to make arrests stick

Although it is little known outside of its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the Department of Commerce, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has a big job to do. It is responsible for enforcing the laws that protect our threatened fisheries and endangered marine mammals. These include the Magnuson Act, which bans foreign fishing fleets from United States waters; the Marine Mammal Protection Act; the Endangered Species Act; and the Lacey Act, which, among other things, outlaws the transporting of illegal marine products across state or international borders. NMFS's 112 agents are also responsible for making sure shrimpers install devices that prevent sea turtles from drowning in their nets and for mediating conflicts over salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

It is dangerous work. NMFS agents worry about being outnumbered, outgunned or ambushed by poachers and other lawbreakers. They are criticized for not doing enough by their allies in the environmental movement and pressured to do less by the industries they monitor.

Their duties are often tedious and exacting, but sometimes the agents score a major environmental victory, as they did a few years ago with a series of stings that helped bring about an international ban on high-seas drift nets. These "fish cops" often work alone, with little prospect for immediate backup if they get into trouble. "We're the commandos of the conservation movement," says one agent.

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