GCN Awards Excellence in IT: Law of the seas

Project at a glance

Who? National Marine Fisheries Service, also known as NOAA Fisheries; NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement; NOAA general counsel's office


Mission: The Office of Law Enforcement's mission is to protect the nation's living marine resources. The general counsel's office defends NOAA Fisheries against legal challenges to agency regulations and in disputes over the science underpinning the regulations.


What was: NOAA Fisheries had to use Coast Guard or its own patrollers to seek out trespassers in prohibited fishing areas, essentially walking a beat. The general counsel's office had fragmented and inadequately coordinated records management systems for its caseloads.


What is: The Vessel Monitoring System sets off an alarm if a tagged boat ventures into prohibited waters. The General Counsel Litigation Database allows NOAA Fisheries attorneys to research cases and view pending litigation in a broad context.


Users: The Office of Law Enforcement has 222 employees. Most of the general counsel's staff works at the Commerce Department in Washington.


Impact: VMS helps NOAA enforce no-fishing zones by letting it know when tagged boats cross the line. The litigation database reduces the number of clerical tasks that attorneys must perform.


Duration: Although NOAA Fisheries started looking at remote-monitoring systems as early as 1995, the VMS project got its first funding in 2001 and continues to grow as more boats are added. Using a rapid-prototyping approach, the agency's IT staff created the litigation database in about six months.


Cost: The fiscal 2003 appropriation for VMS was $2.5 million. Development costs for the litigation database came to about $100,000.

The team behind NOAA's initiatives includes, from left, deputy chief of enforcement Mark Spurrier, national VMS program manager Jonathan Pinkerton, NOAA Fisheries' CIO Larry Tyminski, deputy assistant administrator for fisheries John Oliver and deputy CIO Herb Kaufman.

Henrik G. de Gyor

NOAA systems get a line on fishing laws and legal caseload

The National Marine Fisheries Service has developed technological solutions to two of its main responsibilities: keeping fishing vessels out of restricted waters and fighting regulatory challenges in court.

The service, a bureau of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is receiving a GCN Award both for its Vessel Monitoring System, which electronically augments traditional surveillance of restricted fishing zones, and for its General Counsel Litigation Database.

The General Counsel Litigation Database helps the attorneys in the NOAA general counsel's office manage their litigation workload, track outcomes of cases, research statutes under which cases have been filed, track literature and study emerging trends, said Lawrence Tyminski, CIO of the fisheries service, also known as NOAA Fisheries.

NOAA Fisheries' Office of Law Enforcement has about 160 special agents and enforcement officers to cover 3.5 million square miles of water under its jurisdiction, said Mark Spurrier, deputy chief for enforcement. The Vessel Monitoring System helps the small staff protect that vast area.

Before VMS, either the Coast Guard or NOAA Fisheries boats on patrol had no way of knowing that a fishing vessel was intruding into a closed area unless they observed the infraction. But that's like doing routine random police patrols in a large city, Spurrier said.

'You have no indication that crimes are occurring,' Spurrier said. 'You ride around your patrol sector and see if you run into something, so it's a pretty inefficient way to target limited resources.'

With VMS, NOAA Fisheries can monitor electronically tagged fishing vessels, Spurrier said. If a tagged boat crosses into an area where fishing is seasonally or permanently prohibited, the tag sets off an alarm on a geofencing system and notifies the bureau of the potential violation.

Often, NOAA Fisheries asks the Coast Guard 'as our partners on the water' to respond to the violation, Spurrier said. Either agency now can catch the violators almost in the act.

'Ninety-nine percent of all the hard-working men and women in the fishing industry do the right thing for the right reasons,' Spurrier said. 'But we have a few that, like in most cases, give people bad names.'

If a vessel crosses the geofencing after business hours, VMS pages the on-duty NOAA Fisheries special agents, Spurrier said. They can check it out on any notebook or desktop computer.

VMS provides NOAA Fisheries with excellent evidence to document violations, Spurrier said. Also, in at least three cases, the bureau used VMS to get a good positional fix on a ship sending out a distress signal and thus helped the Coast Guard conduct search and rescue operations.

NOAA Fisheries started looking at technologies for VMS as far back as 1995, Spurrier said. The bureau did a number of pilots in small, localized regions.

In 2000 Spurrier and his staff took a fresh look at the project, and 2001 was the first year in which funding was appropriated for VMS.

This year NOAA Fisheries has extended VMS to all five of its enforcement regions around the country, Spurrier said. Right now the system can handle up to 10,000 vessels per region, for a total of 50,000 ships.

The bureau has installed VMS in only about 2,000 boats, but NOAA officials are hoping for a rapid expansion. 'If projections continue the way they are, within the next 12 months we'll have the largest VMS operation worldwide,' Spurrier said.

Different manufacturers make transponders compatible with VMS, Spurrier said. The transponders, hard-wired into the boats, send signals every 30 to 60 minutes, and the signals are relayed via a commercial satellite to federal authorities.

The off-the-shelf application behind VMS is SmartTRAC, a surveillance package from Absolute Communications Ltd. of Christchurch, New Zealand, Spurrier said. SmartTRAC receives the data and displays each vessel's unique identifier on an electronic map.

The fishing management people plan 'critical fishing areas' and define them by latitude and longitude. NOAA Fisheries creates the geofencing by entering the coordinates into the SmartTRAC software.

Spurrier credited the CIO's office with integrating VMS into the bureau's overall IT architecture.

'That's something you have to do,' Spurrier said. 'Otherwise we end up with stovepiped systems, and we can't do that.'

Scaled for fishing fleet

Before the General Counsel Litigation Database was created, the agency's attorneys had used a Microsoft Access database, but it wasn't scalable enough, Tyminski said. NOAA lawyers couldn't share documents with their colleagues in regional offices.

'Over time, it was becoming inefficient, and it was becoming more and more difficult to pull the right type of information with any degree of accuracy from it,' Tyminski said. So his staff moved the data to an Oracle8i database accessible through a Web interface to provide a secure way for the attorneys to access the data.

Other NOAA bureaus 'don't have quite the litigation workload that Fisheries does, because we're a regulatory agency,' Tyminski said. 'A lot more people have a tendency to file lawsuits against people who promulgate rules.'

The litigation database has decreased the amount of time that it used to take to research queries, said Herbert Kaufman, deputy CIO of NOAA Fisheries.

'Our IT staff really had to learn a whole new lexicon in working with the attorneys,' Tyminski said. The NOAA lawyers had clear ideas of what they wanted the system to do, and Tyminski's employees had to translate those concepts into the design of a relational database.

'Our staff really got an education in a lot of the complexities of litigation within our own agency,' Tyminski said.

Standardizing on drop-down menus and consistent keywords ensured good data quality, he said. Sometimes, data gets put in slightly different formats, so searches don't return entirely accurate results.

It cost about $100,000 to develop the litigation database, excluding the cost of the legal staff's time. 'That was a fairly modest amount of money to gain what we consider a real improvement in the way that litigation is managed across NOAA,' Tyminski said.

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