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Beyond the Badge


OLE’s primary jurisdiction, highlighted in orange, includes more than 3 million square miles of ocean and more than 95,000 miles of U.S.coastline.

NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) agents and officers are responsible for enforcing more than 30 federal statues and numerous international treaties over an area twice the size of Texas. NOAA support personnel at the regional, divisional, and national level provide the support for field staff to help narrow their patrols to ensure an effective use of resources.

The technological sophistication of the modern fisherman is incredible, which demands that law enforcement personnel be supported by equally sophisticated technology to ensure regulations and laws are being adhered to while at sea.

Vessel Monitoring System

In 1988, OLE successfully embarked on its satellite-based Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) to locate high-seas driftnet fishing vessels and monitor compliance with area restrictions in the North Pacific Ocean. VMS allows OLE to use 21st century technologies to monitor compliance, track down violators, and provide evidence for prosecutions while maintaining the confidentiality of the individual fisherman’s trade secrets.

By monitoring transmissions from VMS-equipped vessels, technicians in five OLE divisions help enforcement personnel focus their patrol time on areas with the highest potential for significant violations. The techs are often the first to identify many types of non-compliance and to detect offenses that could lead to OLE or the U.S. Coast Guard boarding non-compliant vessels, and even a final prosecution.


VMS techs now monitor more than 4,400 vessels across the country with near pinpoint accuracy.

“Our VMS technicians do a great job assisting fishermen who need assistance in understanding regulations to be sure they comply, supporting OLE investigations and identifying compliance issues that help our officers, agents and enforcement partners address those issues,” said Logan Gregory, Special Agent in Charge, Northeast Division.

At headquarters, the VMS Help Desk team administers the national surveillance software application, which has more than 2,200 users from OLE, NOAA’s regional fisheries science centers, and more than 25 coastal states, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard and other homeland security organizations. They also manage thousands of vessel accounts that are activated in the VMS. The Help Desk team provides complex technical and regulatory assistance, and is headquarters’ primary source of support for VMS users and customers, including divisional VMS technicians, industry, and the VMS-participating fishermen.

Investigative Analysts

While VMS enhances the range and scope of monitoring fishing vessels, intelligence support staff on the ground sift through mountains of information to narrow the search radius for agents to patrol.

OLE created its intelligence unit in 2008 to complement the office’s other monitoring systems in helping protect U.S. domestic business from illegal fishing. Located at OLE headquarters, the intelligence staff bring various skill sets from an array of enforcement backgrounds with the analytical capability to track and analyze the harvest and trade of fish and other regulated marine products under NOAA’s purview.

OLE Staff analyze business operations, track ownership of vessels and business entities, research and analyze various databases and information systems, develop suspect-violation correlations and profiles, and provide violation forecasting. The focus of this work is to identify incidents, patterns, or trends that violate federal civil and criminal laws and then refer this information to enforcement personnel.

“Our analysts have paid enormous dividends in the short time the unit has been around,” said Bruce Buckson, Director of OLE. “Their unique skill sets have assisted agents in identifying illegal fishing operations on several high-profile cases protecting the interests of the entire fishing community.”

Often out of sight but never out of mind, NOAA’s OLE support personnel help put agents on the right track when identifying areas to search for compliance issues. Whether it’s a vessel monitoring technician in Kodiak, Alaska, or an intelligence analyst at NOAA Headquarters, support staff play an important role in ensuring compliance with the nation’s marine resource laws in support of NOAA’s mission to protect marine wildlife and habitat.

Story by John Thibodeau, communications specialist for NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement. To contact him, please call 301-427-8234 or email john.thibodeau@noaa.gov.