By Richard Gaines
The Commerce Department inspector general's office has notified NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco that the investigation sought by two Massachusetts congressmen into the influences of non-government organizations on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its regional fishery management councils is going forward.
Inspector General Todd Zinser agreed to the probe last October in a letter to Congressmen John Tierney and Barney Frank. They had requested the investigation in an Aug. 17 letter to Zinser.
Ann C. Eilers, principal assistant inspector general for audit and evaluation, indicated the investigation would be national rather than regional in scope in a Jan. 10 memo to Lubchenco, NOAA General Counsel Lois Schiffer, Bruce Buckson, director of the Office of Law Enforcement, and nearly a dozen other high officials the agency.
"Our review of fishery management councils and rule making will be conducted in phases and result in interim products produced at several intervals," Eilers' memo said.
It also said the first step would be an "entrance conference" followed by the "conduct of our review at the fishery management councils and other NOAA locations as necessary."
Zinser's office uncovered widespread abuse of law enforcement authority in 2010, which led to a cabinet-level apology to eight victims of justice miscarried and more than $600,000 in reparations in August 2010.
A special judicial master, retained by then-Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke — now ambassador to China, followed leads into the most egregious cases and has been investigating dozens more, with a second public report based on the follow-up batch of cases expected this spring.
The inspector general's new investigation, as it pertains to the New England Fishery Management Council, arrives as a federal lawsuit against the work of the council and NOAA in creating the catch share regimen for the groundfishery heads into the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.
City as a plaintiff
NOAA and Commerce Secretary John Bryson are to file briefs in response to the plaintiffs, led by the cities of New Bedford and Gloucester.
The plaintiffs, more than two dozen organizations and individuals, failed in U.S. District Court after arguing that the government had contrived to deny fishermen the right to a referendum on whether to adopt the catch share system by creating a limited access privilege program, a legal structure defined by the Magnuson-Stevens Act, while calling it something else.
Underlying the suit and the decision of the plaintiffs to take the case to the Court of Appeals is an explicit concern about undue influence of environmental non-government organizations — notably thee Environmental Defense Fund — that are financially fueled by giant foundations, including those derived from the success of the Hewlett-Packard, Intel and Wal-Mart corporations.
Fisheries journalist Nils Stople has produced research showing that the foundations have invested more than $500 million to influence and shape fisheries policy in recent years. Among the most pervasive ideas was the push for catch share systems that open the door to fishermen and groups buying, selling or trading shares of an allotted catch for each fish stock.
The net effect — including in New England, according to NOAA's own figures — has been to consolidate more quota and control in fewer hands, while driving many small independent fishing boats and businesses to the sidelines. NOAA figures show that the first year of catch shares essentially shut down some two dozen of Gloucester's then 95-vessel fishing fleet.
Lubchenco, then a board officer with the Environmental Defense Fund, helped obtain foundation funding for catch shares studies and helped write a policy paper for EDF that, financed primarily by the Walton Foundation, urged President Obama to transform U.S. fisheries into catch share markets without delay.
Obama then named Lubchenco to head NOAA and since she has pushed for catch share systems in New England and across America's three coasts.
Acceding to her demand, the New England council in 2009 quickly approved the system now under legal challenge, and put no accumulation caps on ownership of the industry.
Cod and caps
The cod crisis, which emerged surprisingly from a 2011 assessment of the inshore Gulf of Maine cod stock, has spotlighted the fissure in the industry between the big boats and the smaller vessels. A detailed allegation by David Pierce, the commonwealth's representative on the council, centers on the larger offshore boats effectively poaching cod from the inshore waters of nearby Stellwagen Bank.
These legal and industry pressures have induced the council to ask — belatedly — for advice on whether to put accumulation caps on quota to protect fleet diversity.
The deadline for filing advice with the council is Thursday. The earliest time for any limits to the system would be next year, council staff has said.
The Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the largest industry group in the region, and the platform for 12 of the 17 fishing cooperatives allowed to operate with and trade in catch shares, has put its weight against placing any controls on the catch share regimen.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.