Vessel Registration

The national fishing industry fleet consists of federally documented vessels authorized to participate in the fishing trade and vessels bearing state numbers used for commercial fishing. Vessel documentation and state numbering are registration programs. Registration records do not include data on how many vessels actively fish or statistics about their operations, indications about their physical (i.e., material) condition, hull forms, or fishing gear.


A Certificate of Documentation (not to be confused with a Certificate of Inspection) is required to operate vessels of at least 5 net tons in certain trades and must be renewed annually. It is evidence of vessel nationality and, with exceptions, permits vessels to be subject to preferred mortgages. An official number is assigned to the vessel, which remains with the vessel while it is under U.S. registry regardless of name or ownership changes. The number must be permanently marked inside the vessel's structure.

The Certificate of Documentation may be endorsed for certain trades. The endorsement is commonly referred to as a “license.” A vessel's document may be endorsed for many eligible trades (e.g., registry, coastwise, Great Lakes, fisheries, or recreational), but it must have a fisheries license endorsement if it is going to engage in fishing. This endorsement entitles the vessel to fish and land its catch, wherever caught, in the United States. It pertains to the legal privilege to engage in the fishery trade, is issued without regard to a vessel's suitability or fitness for such service, and does not replace vessel licenses required by other federal or by state authorities to harvest specific species. By federal law, a vessel permanently loses its fishery license endorsement if it undergoes rebuilding outside the United States (46 U.S.C.A. Chapter 12).

The following vessels, if at least 5 net tons and wholly owned by a U.S. citizen, are eligible for a fishery license endorsement:

  • vessels built in the United States,

  • wrecked vessels,

  • forfeited vessels,

  • captured vessels, and

  • vessels granted fisheries privileges by special legislation.

In March 1990, documentation data recorded in the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Information System (MSIS) indicated there were about 30,000 documented vessels with fishery endorsements. However, a vessel 's actual age in the fishing industry is not monitored by Coast Guard data bases or MSIS. Thus, the

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