By Richard Gaines
---- — After issuing a series of investigative reports exposing excessive enforcement on the part of federal fisheries agents, the U.S. Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General has now turned to auditing how NOAA carried out and implemented policies that have transformed fisheries into commodity markets — and are being blamed for job losses and consolidation throughout the industry.
NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, who has resigned effective at the end of February, was the moving force for the so-called catch share commodification in President Obama’s first term, having promoted it zealously while serving as a board officer with the Environmental Defense Fund.
“The objective of our review,” Andrew Katsaros, assistant inspector general for audits, said in a Feb. 11 memo to Lubchenco, “is to determine the adequacy of controls NOAA has in place to make decisions related to catch share allocations.”
Inspector General Todd Zinser said in a telephone interview Friday that the word “controls” as used is meant to cover the “adequacy of established procedures. “
“It’s a fairly broad objective that will allow the auditors to examine the catch share program as implemented by NOAA,” Zinser said.
A post-2008 election policy paper by Environmental Defense and signed off by Lubchenco — financed primarily by the Walton Family Foundation, rooted in Wal-Mart, promised that converting the wild resources to trade-able catching rights would ensure sustainability and restore profitability to the nation’s fisheries. And EDF vice president David Festa had also predicted that profits of 400 percent were to be had from timely investment in catch shares.
Yet, three years after the Northeast groundfishery was transformed into a catch share system, Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank in September declared the fishery, the nation’s oldest commercial industry and one long centered in Gloucester, to have collapsed into a socio-economic “disaster.”
Recent stock assessments have been discouraging, and drove the decision last month by NOAA’s New England Fishery Management Council to reduce landings of inshore cod — the most essential stock for the fleet — by 77 percent, augering the possible demise of the industry spread along the coast from Maine to New York’s Long Island.
The rigid rebuilding language written into the Magnuson Stevens Act that has crushed the size of the total catch to be distributed to fishermen has no scientific basis, Lubchenco conceded in testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee in October 2011. But she also said she would not support changes in the law that would eliminate the language requiring 10 year rebuilding regimens for distressed stocks.
Concerned that the language in the redraft of the Magnuson-Stevens Act proposed by green lobbyists tilted dangerously toward the fish and away from the fishermen, Congressman John Tierney whose district includes Gloucester, and former Congressman Barney Frank whose represented New Bedford, voted against the 2006 re-authorization of the Magnuson Act.
Both clashed bitterly with Lubchenco and called for her dismissal multiple times in the first Obama administration, and together wrote to Zinser last August asking him to review NOAA’s rule-making.
The inspector general’s office noted in its initial report on rule making by the nation’s eight fishery management councils that Tierney and Frank’s request was prompted by concerns that NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service “had abandoned its core missions of ‘development of the commercial fishing industry’ and ‘increasing industry participation.’”
“I look forward to the Inspector General’s review and audit of the implementation of catch shares,” Tierney said in an email. “As we prepare for the economic impact of drastic catch reductions for the next fishing year, this information is anticipated to be crucial for determining how we can best move forward.”
Twice since 2009, the U.S. House has voted to halt funding for new catch share programs, only to have the Senate opt against interfering.
The inspector general announcement of the audit of the catch share policy came three weeks after publishing the initial chapter in the current series — a report that deemed inadequate the financial disclosures of members of the regional fishery management councils. These are made up of representatives of each ocean state in the region and industry representatives selected by the secretary of commerce from a group of three nominees by each state’s governor.
In a series of investigative reports and testimony to Congress in 2010, Zinser documented how NOAA’s enforcement system extracted inflated and unwarranted fines from industry and then used the money for improper purposes. Pursuing the loose threads left by his macro-focused reports, a special judicial master recommended and two commerce secretaries have agreed to pay more than $1.3 million in reparations to more than two dozen victims of miscarried fishery justice
Lubchenco at first sought to ignore the past abuses while reforming the system, and has taken no known disciplinary action moving the agents, litigators and even the chief of law enforcement to different positions. Zinser said the former chief, Dale Jones, shredded the vast majority of his official documents during the active phase of the inspector general’s investigation.
Jones was converted to a fisheries analyst, at a pay rate of $150,000 a year, about $5,000 less than he made has head of a fisheries police force of more than 200 agents.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucester