An endangered green sea turtle swimming in the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean. Photo by Shane Myers
By Tanya Brothen
Affectionately referred to as the “fish office,” the Office of Marine Conservation (OMC) pursues United States conservation and economic objectives while navigating complex global challenges related to sustainably managing shared stocks of fish and other animals in the ocean and the North American Great Lakes. The impact of this work is significant, global, and growing—1.8 million U.S. jobs exist in the commercial and recreational fishing industries, and 3.3 billion people around the world get almost 20% of their average per capita intake of animal protein from fish.
As part of the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES), this dedicated team works to ensure economic prosperity and security at home and abroad through healthy, sustainably managed fisheries. These responsibilities include negotiating international fisheries management measures in multilateral fora, advocating for the role of fisheries and aquaculture in food security at the United Nations, and combating illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing around the world.
“OMC actively engages with Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs), which govern international fisheries and set out the conservation and management measures in the ocean,” said Office Director Dave Hogan.
In waters where the United States has a strong interest in ensuring strong, science-based conservation and management of shared fisheries, including where U.S. commercial and recreational fishers are active, the U.S. is a contracting party to the RFMOs sending delegations to participate in intersessional and annual meetings.
During last year’s annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT)—an RFMO that oversees fisheries management in the Atlantic—OMC joined the interagency U.S. delegation to advocate for science-based fisheries management and conservation measures.
“We collaborate closely with our colleagues at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to outline and advance U.S. objectives at the ICCAT annual meeting,” said Deputy Office Director Deirdre Warner-Kramer.
That collaboration produced multiple wins, including the adoption of measures to rebuild shortfin mako shark populations, as well as an increase in the U.S. western Atlantic bluefin tuna quota, made possible by a healthier stock due to successful sustainable management efforts.
“Our interagency team works well together, and the proof is in our achievements that protect natural resources and benefit U.S. economic interests at the same time,” added Warner-Kramer.
Pivoting to virtual negotiations and fisheries management at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic posed innumerable challenges for OMC. The Section 609 Program, which is mandated by U.S. law and assesses foreign countries’ sea turtle protection measures in trawl fisheries that target shrimp, relies on OMC staff and NOAA technical experts to physically verify, among other requirements, the use of turtle excluder devices on shrimp vessels around the world. Overcoming exceptional domestic and international travel barriers, and ensuring the health and safety of all involved, OMC undertook some of the only travel OES conducted during the pandemic in order to meet this statutory obligation.
Closer to home, OMC plays a leading role in ensuring the United States meets its responsibilities pursuant to the 1954 Convention on Great Lakes Fisheries between the United States and Canada. The treaty’s main objective was to combat the growing invasive sea lamprey population, which are parasitic fish native to the Atlantic Ocean, as well as the countless negative consequences of decades of lake resource mismanagement. OMC works to protect the Great Lakes’ commercial, recreational, and tribal fisheries, which are collectively valued at more than $7 billion annually through funding and oversight of the binational Great Lakes Fishery Commission, the body established by the treaty to oversee its implementation. Additional public benefits to this work include protecting clean drinking water and electricity production for millions of citizens on both sides of the border.
Back at sea, the greatest challenge facing the health of the oceans is IUU fishing. This practice also threatens the livelihoods of coastal communities that rely on sustainable fish stocks for income and food security and creates market distortions that put law-abiding fishers at a disadvantage. The OMC team employs several tactics to fight this global scourge. For example, OMC helped negotiate and oversee implementation of the Port State Measures Agreement, a groundbreaking treaty designed to ensure catches from IUU fishing vessels cannot be offloaded in ports and enter the global market. Additionally, the U.S. Coast Guard liaison assigned to OMC manages cooperation with partner countries to monitor and enforce fishing rules at sea, including through “shiprider” agreements that allow foreign law enforcement officers aboard U.S. ships to take enforcement action against their own vessels.
As President Joe Biden said, “The world’s ocean basins are critical to the success of our nation and, indeed, to life on Earth.”
OMC will continue to dedicate its efforts to ensuring the long-term health of these precious resources.
Tanya Brothen is a foreign affairs officer at the Office of Marine Conservation.