Special Section U.S. Coast Guard

Special Section
U.S. Coast Guard

U.S. Coast Guard Special Section.  If you are a user with disability and cannot view this image, please call 800-853-1351.
U.S. Coast Guard


Maritime Security

Maritime law enforcement and border control are the oldest of the U.S. Coast Guard's (USCG) numerous responsibilities, dating back to its founding as the Revenue Cutter Service in 1790. Congress established the Revenue Cutter Service specifically to patrol the nation's coasts and seaports to frustrate smuggling and enforce the customs laws of the fledgling Republic.

Two centuries have passed, and that early challenge has evolved into a full open ocean responsibility for the maritime sovereignty of our nation. The USCG maritime law enforcement role and the task of interdicting ships at sea provide the foundation on which the much broader and complex present-day mission set has been built.

As the nation's primary maritime law enforcement service, the USCG enforces or assists in enforcing federal laws, treaties, and other international agreements on the high seas and waters under U.S. jurisdiction. The USCG possesses the authority to board any vessel subject to U.S. jurisdiction to make inspections, searches, inquiries, and arrests. This law enforcement authority is primarily used to suppress violations of our drug, immigration, fisheries, and environmental laws.

As the designated lead agency for maritime drug interdiction under the National Drug Control Strategy and the co-lead agency with the U.S. Customs Service for air interdiction operations, the USCG defends America's seaward frontier against illegal drug trafficking. For more than two decades USCG cutters and aircraft deployed off South America and in the transit zone have intercepted tons of cocaine, marijuana, and other illegal drugs that otherwise would have found their way to America's streets.

USCG alien migrant interdiction operations (AMIO) are also law enforcement missions with a significant humanitarian dimension. Migrants typically take great risks and endure significant hardships in their attempts to flee their countries and enter the United States. In many cases, migrant vessels interdicted at sea are overloaded and unseaworthy, lack basic safety equipment, and are operated by inexperienced mariners. The majority of alien migrant interdiction cases handled actually begin as search and rescue cases. Between 1980 and 2000, the USCG interdicted 290,000 migrants, mostly from Cuba, Dominican Republic, People's Republic of China, and Haiti.

Maritime Safety

One of the most basic responsibilities of the U.S. Government is to protect the lives and safety of Americans. In the maritime realm, that lead responsibility falls to the USCG. In partnership with other federal agencies, state and local governments, marine industries, and individual mariners, the USCG preserves safety at sea through a focused program of prevention, response, and investigation. Prevention activities include developing commercial and recreational vessel standards, enforcing compliance with these standards, licensing commercial mariners, operating the International Ice Patrol to protect ships transiting the North Atlantic shipping lanes, and educating the public.

The USCG develops operating and construction criteria for many types of vessels, from commercial ships to recreational boats. The USCG represents the United States in the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which promulgates measures to improve shipping safety, pollution prevention, mariner training, and certification standards.

Also, the USCG is the agency primarily responsible for developing domestic shipping and navigation regulations. The USCG inspects U.S. flag vessels, mobile offshore drilling units, and marine facilities; examines foreign-flag vessels based on the potential safety and pollution risk they pose; reviews and approves plans for vessel construction, repair, and alteration; and documents and measures U.S. flag vessels.

The Port State Control program, which is aimed at eliminating substandard vessels from U.S. ports and waterways, is a key element in the USCG's safety enforcement program because 95% of passenger ships and 75% of cargo ships operating in U.S. waters are foreign-flagged.

As National Recreational Boating Safety Coordinator, the USCG works to minimize loss of life, personal injury, property damage, and environmental harm associated with recreational boating. Their boating safety program involves public education programs, regulation of boat design and construction, approval of boating safety equipment, and courtesy marine examinations of boats for compliance with federal and state safety requirements. The all-volunteer USCG Auxiliary plays a central role in this program.

USCG prevention activities in pursuit of maritime safety are often inseparable from those it performs to protect the marine environment or police the U.S. marine transportation system. Actions in one area often reinforce those required for other roles and missions. As a result, the USCG's accident-prevention efforts save many lives and contribute to the economic and environmental health of the nation. As the lead agency for maritime search and rescue (SAR) in U.S. waters, it coordinates the SAR efforts of sea and airborne USCG units, as well as those of federal, state, and local responders. It also leverages the world's merchant fleet to rescue mariners in distress around the globe through the Automated Mutual-assistance Vessel Rescue (AMVER) system.

Finally, in addition to responding to a wide variety of time-critical maritime emergencies and accidents, the USCG investigates their causes and determines whether laws have been violated or whether changes should be made to improve safety through our prevention programs.

Protection of Natural Resources

America's marine waters and their ecosystems are vital to the health, well being, and economy of the nation. The USCG's protection of natural resources role dates back to the 1820s, when Congress tasked the Revenue Cutter Service to protect federal stocks of Florida live oak. As the exploitation of the nation's valuable marine resources-whales, fur-bearing animals, and fish- increased, the USCG was given the duty to protect these resources as well. The USCG's role has expanded over the last few decades to include enforcing laws intended to protect the environment as a public good. As a result, it now actively protects sensitive marine habitats, marine mammals, and endangered marine species, and enforces laws protecting U.S. waters from the discharge of oil and other hazardous substances.

The Coast Guard conducts a wide range of activities- education and prevention, enforcement, response and containment, and recovery- in support of its primary environmental protection mission areas: maritime pollution enforcement, offshore lightering zone enforcement, domestic fisheries enforcement, and foreign vessel inspection. They also provide mission-critical command and control support and usually are the first responding force to environmental disasters on the seas.

Under the National Contingency Plan, Coast Guard Captains of the Port are the predesignated Federal On-Scene Coordinators (FOSC) for oil and hazardous substance incidents in all coastal and some inland areas. The FOSC is, in reality, the President's designated on-scene representative. As such, the FOSC is responsible for forging a well coordinated and effective response operation involving a diverse set of government and commercial entities in many emotionally charged and potentially dangerous emergency situations.

Maritime Mobility

The U.S. marine transportation system facilitates America's global reach into foreign markets and the nation's engagement in world affairs, including protection of U.S. national interests through a national and international regulatory framework governing trade and commerce. This system includes the waterways and ports through which more than 2 billion tons of America's foreign and domestic freight and 3.3 billion barrels of oil move each year, plus the intermodal links that support our economic and military security. It also includes international and domestic passenger services, commercial and recreational fisheries, and recreational boating.

A major USCG mission is to provide a safe, efficient, and navigable waterway system to support domestic commerce, international trade, and the military sealift requirements for national defense. In support of this mission, the services it provides include long- and short-range aids to navigation; charting, tide/current/pilotage information through Notices to Mariners; vessel traffic services; domestic and international icebreaking and patrol services; technical assistance and advice; vessel safety standards and inspection; and bridge administration standards and inspection.

National Defense

The USCG has served alongside the U.S. Navy in critical national defense missions, beginning with the quasi-war with France in 1798, through the Civil War, World Wars I and II, to the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War. The close relationship between USCG services and its other agencies has evolved through more than two centuries of cooperation, culminating in a 1995 agreement between the Secretaries of Defense and Transportation. This agreement assigns to the USCG five specific national defense missions in support of the Unified Commander-in- Chief (CINCs) in addition to its general defense operations and polar icebreaking duties. These missions-maritime interception operations; military environmental response operations; port operations, security, and defense; peace time military engagement; and coastal sea control operations-require the USCG to execute military functions and tasks in support of joint and combined forces in peacetime, crisis, and war. In recent years, the CINCs have requested USCG cutters to conduct military interception operations, peacetime military engagement, and other supporting warfare tasks in all key areas of operations.