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Enforcement Officer Bob Yerena Receives NOAA Administrator’s Award

NOAA Enforcement Officer Bob Yerena served 20 years as a military police officer in the U.S. Army before retiring and joining NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement in December 1998. “I’ve always been fascinated by the ocean, what takes place there and who is watching it,” Yerena said. “I did some research on NOAA and said, ‘That’s the job for me.’”

NOAA Enforcement Officer Shares Secrets of Success

When NOAA Enforcement Officer Bob Yerena first arrived at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in 2003, he looked around and thought, “It’s impossible.” With 267 miles of California shoreline and 6,094 square miles of ocean to patrol, Yerena knew he could be as far as four hours away if a call came in needing his response. Up to the challenge, Yerena proved that the impossible is possible. He recently received the NOAA Administrator’s Award from Dr. Jane Lubchenco for building exemplary agency partnerships and public support for effective enforcement and protection of the nation’s largest marine sanctuary. So how did he do it?

Collaboration with Partners

With so much territory to cover, Yerena quickly figured out he couldn’t do it alone. He made a concentrated effort to meet with other state and federal agencies and he sold them on an idea: they could be his extra eyes and ears around the Sanctuary. In return, he assisted enforcement partners in patrols, searches, evidence collection, arrests, information gathering, witness interviews, and better understanding and application of federal laws addressing environmental protection issues.

Since those initial meetings, Yerena has trained more than 75 state and federal enforcement personnel on Sanctuary regulations. He meets with his partners quarterly to get to know them, to go over NOAA’s enforcement priorities, and to coordinate joint response strategies for enforcement issues of mutual concern. While most other agencies don’t have NOAA enforcement authority, they prepare police reports and forward them to Yerena for further action. In return, Yerena invites partners to come aboard NOAA vessels and U.S. Coast Guard aircraft, which allows them to cover vast areas of their own jurisdictions that lie within the Sanctuary.

Sanctuary Superintendent Paul Michel notes “Officer Yerena has far exceeded any gains he could have possibly made alone. His affable personality, integrity, confidence, and professionalism have earned the respect of enforcement partners and the public and have been key to his success in building relationships critical to effective enforcement monitoring and response throughout the Sanctuary.”

NOAA Enforcement Officer Bob Yerena (in uniform) observes a necropsy on a baby humpback whale in the Monterey National Marine Sanctuary. Marine mammal disturbances such as ship strikes of endangered whales and shooting of sea lions are one of the most common enforcement issues Yerena sees in the Sanctuary.

Educating and Working with the Public

Exemplary customer service has helped Yerena earn immeasurable trust and support from coastal residents and others who continually alert NOAA to potential problems. He immediately responds to public calls and follows up with callers to inform them of enforcement outcomes, despite having a coverage area as large as the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

Between 2003 and 2012, Yerena has investigated about 200 complaints and incidents in the Sanctuary each year. Main enforcement issues include marine mammal disturbances such as ship strikes of endangered whales and shooting of sea lions; pollution and water quality issues that can come from land or from sea-going vessels; and abandoned vessels and vessel groundings. Yerena also responds to commercial fishing violations in federal waters or disturbances that have a potential impact on listed species in streams, ditches and rivers.

Concerns that were common at one time have been resolved through Yerena’s work with partners and the public. He has developed proven techniques for identifying low-flying aircraft in violation of Sanctuary regulations. When contacting pilots, he gains their voluntary compliance, resulting in few—if any—repeat offenders. His efforts have contributed to a dramatic reduction in both aircraft and boat disturbances at a sensitive seabird colony. In fact, even though the number of biological observations at the colony increased in 2009, the overall disturbance rate decreased by 78 percent over the previous year, indicating that both aircraft and boat operators changed their behavior to avoid disturbance to the seabird colony.

Indeed, educating the public about the special place marine sanctuaries have in the ecosystem is Yerena’s favorite part of the job.

NOAA Enforcement Officer Bob Yerena surveys the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary from a U.S. Coast Guard C130 aircraft. Yerena partners with the Coast Guard and other state and federal agencies to patrol an ocean area larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

“I try to impress upon the public to respect the marine mammals, sea birds, and turtles that live in these unique Sanctuary waters,” Yerena said. “This is their home. Don’t feed or disturb the sea lions. Reduce the speed of your boat around whales. Don’t throw out your trash.”

“When I explain it that way, it makes people pause and really think about it,” he continued. “Maybe next time they will think twice about causing any harm to the environment. And that’s the point: not that we’re going to cite you or that we’re going to fine you. It’s simply, ‘Think about the consequences of your actions.’”

Sanctuary personnel agree.

“In the end, it’s not regulations or penalties that will protect the ocean environment from harm – it’s the cultivation of public stewardship that will safeguard the nation’s special places for centuries to come,” said Scott Kathey, federal regulatory coordinator for the Sanctuary. “Officer Yerena knows this and focuses each day on encouraging stewardship in each person he meets within the Sanctuary, making a difference one person at a time.”