By Times Staff
The state's attorney general has called upon Congress to pass federal legislation aimed at reimbursing local fishermen for the legal bill they have incurred while appealing excessive fined and penalties imposed by NOAA enforcement as documented by a federal inspector general and special investigator for the U.S. Commerce Department.
In letters sent to the Chairmen of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, Attorney General Coakley expressed her support for two bills filed by Sen. and Commerce committee chief John Kerry and by Congressman Barney Frank that would amend the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the regulatory framework that governs America's fisheries from Gloucester and New England to the West Coast and Alaska.
The bills were filed following an investigation by a federal Inspector General Todd Zinser — and expanded by retired U.S. Judge Robert B. Swartwood III as a special investigative master assigned by former Commerce Secretary Gary Locke — both of whom found that the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration enforcement engaged in excessive practices that included the filing of a false affidavit, an unauthorized, after-hours entry into the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction, and fines that have run up to 500 percent higher than those levied in other parts of the country.
The Frank and Kerry bills would establish a formal process to reimburse fishermen and related businesseas for legal fees incurred while appealing those excessive fines.
"The livelihood of fishermen and the economies of our fishing communities have been greatly harmed by the excessive penalties levied by NOAA, and an appeals process that stacked the decks against them," Coakley said Wednesday in a prepared statement. "These two pieces of legislation are important steps toward restoring fairness and reimbursing our fishermen for the legal fees they incurred while challenging those unfair penalties. I commend Sen. Kerry and Congressman Frank for their leadership on this important issue."
The letters sent by AG Coakley ask that Congress adopt the changes set forth in H.R. 2610 — the Asset Forfeiture Fund Reform and Distribution Act of 2011 filed by Frank — and Senate 1304, the Fisheries Fee Fairness Act of 2011 filed by Kerry.
Frank's bill would amend Magnuson to reform procedures for the payment of funds from the Asset Forfeiture Fund — the fine that is built with fines and penalties paid by fishermen and fishing industry businesses, and the pool of money identified by Zinser as being subject to little or no oversight under former NOAA police force chief Dale Jones.
Frank's bill also would reimburse fishermen who have successfully challenged excessive fines for their legal fees and shift surplus funds back to the states for use in research and monitoring of fish stocks; fisheries management; and socioeconomic assessments of fishing communities.
Businesses currently in the midst of seeking reimbursement for its legal costs include the Gloucester Auction.
Kerry's bill would authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to reimburse legal fees to fishermen who have successfully challenged fisheries enforcement penalties assessed by NOAA.
The letters sent this week are the latest steps by Coakley on behalf of Massachusetts fishermen.
During a 2009 visit to the Gloucetser Seafood Auction, it was Coakley who declared that " Something is wrong here," regarding NOAA's enforcement and prosecution tactics; Coakley has expressed new concerns with the recent transition to a "catch share" system, known as Amendment 16, and submitted briefs as amici in lawsuits challenging Amendment 16, including the lawsuit filed by the cities of Gloucester and New Bedford and a variety of other fishing interests.
The plaintiffs in that suit, including the twin Massachusetts port cities, have filed an appeal of an initial federal judge's ruling rejecting their claims, the industry news site SavingSeafood.com reported Wednesday.