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March 29, 2011

Report: Congress ate away at seafood promo dollars

Revelations that $400 million that should have been used to promote seafood caught or farmed in the United States was instead used as part to pay for the running of the NOAA and its National Marine Fisheries Service has sparked anger in the commercial fishing industry from Florida to New England.

A Congressional Research Service report, which the Times began analyzing Monday, brings to light how the spirit and letter of the original law, the Saltonstall-Kennedy Act of 1954, and multiple amendments in later years have been ignored or abandoned, to the detriment of the domestic seafood industry.

"Beginning in 1979," the Congressional Research Service reported, "increasing amounts of Saltonstall-Kennedy dollars have been transferred to ... NOAA's operations, research and facilities account," the agency's general operating budget.

Since 1982, the service continued, "the Saltonstall-Kennedy program has never allocated the minimum amount specified by law for industry projects."

Instead of devoting at least 60 percent of the revenue stream from import tariffs gathered by U.S. Customs for fishing industry projects, as Congress had mandated beginning in 1983, larger and larger amounts of the tariff money was diverted into the operating budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, parent of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

From 2007 on, less than 10 percent of the tariff charges given to NOAA were used as the Saltonstall-Kennedy legislative history required.

The diversion of the money was a congressional decision, not the choice of NOAA, said Gary Reisner, CFO of NOAA Fisheries in a telephone interview with the Times.

NOAA and members of Congress said they were attempting to determine how the Saltonstall-Kennedy program operated, and what factors were responsible for altering its mission.

"The Congressional Research Report raises serious and troubling questions about NOAA's management of fishery finances, and warrants an immediate investigation," U.S. Sen. Scott Brown said Monday.

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