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A History of the United States Coast Guard

Updated on April 16, 2011

The United States Coast Guard has a rich history beginning on August 4, 1790 when the first Congress authorized the construction of ten vessels to enforce tariff and trade laws and to prevent smuggling. The Coast Guard is one of the oldest organizations of the federal government and until the Navy was established it was the nation’s only armed service afloat. A unique aspect of this organization involves reporting to the Department of Homeland Security in times of Peace and the Department of the Navy in times of War.

The legal basis for the Coast Guard organization can be found in Title 14 of the United States Code. The language specifically states: “The Coast Guard as established January 28, 1915, shall be a military service and a branch of the armed forces of the United States at all times.” The Coast Guard is a proud organization and has a long history of accomplishments associated with the eleven (11) missions to which it is entrusted. These missions and their objectives are identified below in the subsequent paragraphs.

Ports, Waterways and coastal security - This extent of this mission relates to the protection of the U.S. Maritime Domain and the U.S. Marine Transportation System. In addition the Coast Guard is tasked with activities to prevent and disrupt terrorist attacks, sabotage, espionage, or subversive acts and responding to and recovery from those that do occur.

Drug interdiction – The Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs Service share responsibility for drug interdiction but it has the lead for air interdiction. It is a key player to combat the flow of illegal drugs into the United States.

Aids to navigation – Achieving this mission involves providing a resource for boating safety including an education program to inform boaters of the rules and regulations to keep them safe. In addition the Coast Guard is involved with providing navigation products for use in the sport of boating.

Search and rescue - Minimizing the loss of life, injury, property damage or loss by rendering aid to persons in distress and property in the maritime environment has always been a Coast Guard priority.

Living marine resources - The Coast Guard enforces fisheries laws at sea, as tasked by the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act (MSFCMA).

Marine safety – This includes six major initiatives as part of a Marine Safety Performance Plan from 2009-2014. These include improving the capacity and competency of our personnel to ensure a superior workforce; improving service delivery to our stakeholders; improving management practices; improving recreational vessel safety; addressing towing vessel safety; and reducing the risks associated with commercial fishing.

Defense readiness – This includes providing homeland security in our nation’s harbors, ports and along our coastline. Commercial, tanker, passenger, and merchant vessels have all been subject to increased security measures enforced by the Coast Guard. Four missions are included within the defense readiness responsibilities. These include maritime intercept operations, deployed port operations/security and defense, peacetime engagement, and environmental defense operations

Migrant interdiction – The Coast Guard is tasked with enforcing immigration law at sea.

Marine environmental protection - The Marine Environmental Protection program develops and enforces regulations to avert the introduction of invasive species into the maritime environment, stop unauthorized ocean dumping, and prevent oil and chemical spills.

Ice operations - The Coast Guard conducts icebreaking services to assist vessels and communities in emergency situations and facilitate essential commercial maritime activities in the Great Lakes and Northeast regions

Other law enforcement - Preventing illegal foreign fishing vessel encroachment in the EEZ is a primary Coast Guard role vital to protecting the integrity of the Nation’s maritime borders and ensuring the health of U.S. fisheries. The Coast Guard also enforces international agreements to suppress damaging illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing activity on the high seas.

Some of the accomplishments and recognition of this service involves three areas. These involve safety, security and stewardship. Some of the accomplishments in the area of safety the Coast Guard saved almost $158 million dollars in property; conducted more than 4,700 marine casualty investigations and performed more than 12,000 safety and environmental examinations of foreign vessels entering U.S. Ports.

Accomplishments in the area of security involved removing nearly 185 tons of cocaine bound toward the United States via the transit zone. Other accomplishments involved interdicting nearly 5,000 undocumented migrants attempting to enter the United States illegally and conducted waterside security and escorts for nearly 500 military freight conveyances, which provided supplies to support Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

The stewardship category also has unique accomplishments such as rescuing citizens and helping to restore the marine transportation system during and after Hurricanes Ike and Gustav. Other activities included investigating almost 4,000 pollution incidents and performing nearly 17,000 facility safety inspections and 20,000 container inspections. The container inspections are a great activity as there are large numbers of containers coming to our shores every year.


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