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The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is a United States federal agency. A division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Commerce, NMFS is responsible for the stewardship and management of the nation's living marine resources and their habitat within the United States' Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends seaward 200 nautical miles from the coastline (about 370 kilometers). NOAA oversees the NMFS.
Using the tools provided by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the NMFS assesses and predicts the status of fish stocks, ensures compliance with fisheries regulations and works to end wasteful fishing practices. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, the agency is also tasked with recovering protected marine species such as wild salmon, whales and sea turtles.
With the help of the six regional science centers, eight regional fisheries management councils, the coastal states and territories, and three interstate fisheries management commissions, NMFS conserves and manages marine fisheries to promote sustainability and to prevent lost economic potential associated with overfishing, declining species, and degraded habitats. While the coastal states and territories generally have authority to manage fisheries within near-shore state waters, the NMFS has the primary responsibility to conserve and manage marine fisheries in the U.S. exclusive economic zone beyond state waters. The agency also attempts to balance competing public needs for the natural resources under its management.
The NMFS also serves as a federal law enforcement agency, working closely with state enforcement agencies, the U.S. Coast Guard, and foreign enforcement authorities. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Office for Law Enforcement is based in Silver Spring, Maryland.
The NMFS regulatory program is one of the most active in the federal government, with hundreds of regulations published annually in the Federal Register. Most regulations are published to conserve marine fisheries under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act; other regulations are published under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act. The NMFS also regulates fisheries pursuant to decisions of "regional fishery management organizations"(RFMOs) and other RFMOs to which the U.S. is a party, such as the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, the Agreement on the International Dolphin Conservation Program, etc.
Some regulations by NMFS are quite controversial. For example, in 2007, the NMFS issued regulations to protect endangered whales from fatal fishing-gear entanglements after environmental groups sued to force action on the rules, which were proposed in early 2005. The rules were enacted to specifically protect the North Atlantic Right Whale, of which about only 350 remain. Marine gear entanglements and ship strikes are the top human causes of right whale deaths. On July 1, the shipping lanes in and out of Boston Harbor were rotated to avoid an area with a high concentration of the right whales.
The National Marine Fisheries Service operates six fisheries science centers covering marine fisheries conducted by the United States. The science centers correspond roughly to the administrative division of fisheries management into five regions, with the west coast utilizing two fisheries science centers.
The Northeast Fisheries Science Center is headquartered in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. It operates laboratories at five other locations, and an additional marine field station. The primary mission of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center is the management of fisheries on the Northeast shelf. However, it also oversees the operation of the National Systematics Lab, in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution.
The National Marine Fisheries Service maintains the Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Science Centers are both located in Seattle. The Alaska fisheries Science Center is located on the grounds of the now-closed Naval Station Puget Sound. The Northwest Fisheries Science Center is located adjacent to the University of Washington. This site is also home to the Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Science Center Library. This library was founded in 1931. As of 2011, this library contained 16,000 books and subscribed to 250 periodicals. Its subject interests include aquatic science, biochemistry, fisheries biology, fisheries management, food science, and marine science.
The Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center is headquartered in Honolulu, Hawaii, on the campus of the University of Hawaii at Monoa. It operates several facilities, including facilities for NOAA ships at Ford Island.
The Southeast Fisheries Science Center is headquartered in Miami, Florida, and monitors marine fisheries in the American Southeast, including Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. It additionally operates five labs, some of which operate multiple facilities.
The Southwest Fisheries Science Center, headquartered in La Jolla, California, monitors and advises fisheries in NOAA's Southwest region. It operates facilities on the campus of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
In recent years, the agency has come under intense scrutiny from the fishing industry, both commercial and recreational, and Congress, leading to a multi-part investigation by the Commerce Department Inspector General which found serious problems and misuse of funds.
During her confirmation hearing, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, NOAA Administrator in the Obama Administration, expressed a commitment to fix a relationship between the fishing industry and NMFS. Lubchenco herself called the relationship between NMFS and those whom it regulates "seriously dysfunctional."
Dale Jones, former director of federal fishing law enforcement, and his deputy director Mark Spurrier were removed from their positions in April 2010 of after a series of audits by U.S. Department of Commerce Inspector General Todd Zinser. Mr. Zinser and his investigators found that Jones had presided over wildly excessive and disproportionate treatment of New England fishermen, misuse of government funds, and a document shredding party while Zinser was actively investigating his department. Andrew Cohen, Special Agent in Charge NER, was relieved of his position in September 2010 due to findings of overzealous law enforcement practices.
During 2010, the U.S. Department of Commerce Office of Inspector General issued four Reports or Reviews of NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Programs and Operations. Here are the links to the four reports January 2010 OIG Report, April 2010 OIG Report on Destruction of Documents at NOAA Fisheries During an Ongoing OIG Review, July 2010 OIG Report on Asset Forfeiture Fund, September 2010 Final OIG Report. The cluster of OIG Reports found such a troubling situation within NOAA that on September 23, 2010 Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke reached down into NOAA and took command himself for resolving the issues raised by Inspector General Zinser Secretary Locke to Appoint Special Master to Review NOAA Law Enforcement Cases, Restricts Use of the Asset Forfeiture Fund.
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