Rules and Regulations

For most countries, enforcement of fisheries regulations is deadly serious business. This is the Royal Bahamas Defence Force Vessel, HMBS Rolly Gray. She approached us for an inspection while we were anchored off Eleuthera.

If you range across many national and state jurisdictions, as we do, keeping track of the fishing regulations from one place to another is a major challenge. Size limits, closed seasons, no-fishing areas, all change both in time and place, it can be a real problem, but one you have to solve.  The consequences for failure to comply do not come with a get-out-of-jail-free card because you did not know the rules.  Especially if you are in a foreign country, the consequences can be serious, including large fines, time in a third-world jail, even losing your boat.

Country by Country

We make it a habit to never fish in a country’s waters until we have checked in with customs and immigration and become official visitors with all our paperwork complete. Always, always be aware of the geographic limits a country has on their fisheries. In most cases it will be 200 nautical miles from shore, and will be clearly labeled on your chart, if you look for it. Even if you are just transiting an area, you are subject to, and fully responsible for following, local fishing regulations. 

Something that frequently confuses visitors to the USA is the relationship between state and the national governments.  In most countries, it is the national government that makes fisheries rules.  In the USA it is both the individual states, AND the national government that have rules, and they are not all the same. Which apply depend on exactly where you fish. Add in needing a different fishing permit fo each state, and it gets really complex.

An App to the Rescue-Sometimes!

One of the helpful tools for traveling and fishing in USA waters has been the free app “FishRules” which has the fishing regulations for the entire east coast, the Bahamas, plus California.  It is available for iOS, Android, and as a website. It can quickly give you a summary of what is legal to catch, when, for wherever you are, including what permits and licenses you might need. It doesn’t necessarily have all the rules you might need to know, but it certainly is a good start, and refers you to the appropriate authority’s source (both internet, and phone) for more information.

Know your fish!

King? Cero? or Spanish Mackeral? If you want to comply with the law you need to be able to tell the difference!

Be sure you are aware of your fish identification. As an example, in places in the southeast USA there is a daily bag limit and a size limit on King mackerel, but not on the very similar looking Cero mackerel. Having an under-sized, juvenile King mackerel in your icebox could cost you a significant fine, and it doesn’t matter that you honestly thought it was a Cero.  If you have any doubt about ID and legality, throw it back! 

USA Highly Migratory Species Permit

In the national waters of the USA, if you are going to fish for any of several pelagic fish species (most kinds of tuna, any billfish, and most sharks) in the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, or Caribbean, you will need a special “Highly Migratory Species Permit” (HMSP).  It is a permit that goes with the boat not the individual fisherman. It is an annual permit available online from NOAA at a very reasonable cost ($26 in 2019) and has some important reporting requirements that go along with it. The details can be found here: 2019 HMSP Compliance Guide. If you do not have the permit, and you are caught with one of the regulated tuna on board, you could be in trouble. This is in addition to any state license that might be required. It is cheap, and easy to get online.

Dealing with Possession Limits

For those of us who live and cruise on our boats without a land base the fishing rules as written in most jurisdictions in the USA can pose a significant challenge. When you are fishing, it is almost always illegal to have in your possession (i.e., onboard) more than one (or sometimes two) daily bag limits of any type of fish. It is not unusual that our freezer will contain more than the maximum allowed “possession limit” for several types of fish. It is also usually prohibited to possess any fish while fishing that is not essentially whole, although different jurisdictions define this differently. In some places, you have to keep any caught fish whole “until landed”, in others you can remove guts, or guts and head, “until landed”, and in some fisheries you can fillet on board, but need to leave leave the fillet whole, with the skin on “until landed”. What to do if we are not “landing” our catch—ever?

From a fisheries enforcement standpoint, these rules makes perfect sense. The authorities need to be able to count fish on your boat by species and measure them for size as part of your daily fishing limit. If it was allowed, cleaning a fish and chopping it up into small, unidentifiable pieces, would be a perfect way to evade the rules if you were an unscrupulous poacher. For those of us who live on board and want to keep fish for personal consumption, it poses a conundrum.

There is no answer I know of that is both practical, and fully complies with the literal letter of the regulations in all jurisdictions. I know that I will be relying on the common sense, judgement, and discretion of any enforcement officer who boards our boat for an inspection.

Every package of fish we put in our freezer is labeled with species, and date.  Not only does that make sense for our own use, it makes clear what we caught and when.  We don’t label where things were caught, but our ship’s log would show where we were on the day in question should anyone ever want to get that deep into the weeds.

We take pictures of every fish we keep, and if there is a local size limit, it is a good idea to have a tape measure in the photo if there is ANY question about the fish’s size. If you are going out fishing for a day, and returning to a dock or anchor, then follow the local rules for how to handle your daily fish catch—exactly. Clean your catch after you tie up for the day.

In short, we try to do everything we can to show that we respect and comply with the rules as best we can.  I have never heard of a cruising boat that was “busted” solely because they had fish onboard in long term storage for personal consumption, but in many jurisdictions it would be within the regulations to do so.


The few times I have been boarded for a fisheries inspection, the officer was polite and reasonable. Some expressed surprise to find serious fishing happening from a sailboat. They were not looking for minor technical violations of the rules, but for people who either were deliberately ignoring the rules, or were fishing ignorant of them. Having a respectful attitude, permits and licenses organized and readily available, and showing a good knowledge of the applicable rules goes a long way to keeping any inspection short and simple.

If YOU treat an inspection as an adversarial encounter, it is only rational to expect the inspector to do the same. I much prefer to view the enforcement people as my ally in ensuring a long term sustainable fishery where science-based harvest rules are followed by everybody.