By Richard Gaines
The Commerce Department's inspector general is turning a critical eye again to the federal government's regulation of commercial fishing, based on complaints emanating from the industry and a request by Massachusetts' congressmen.
After exposing a federal fisheries law enforcement system that treated New England fishermen as criminals by denying their rights and extracting excessive fines that were improperly used, Inspector General Todd Zinser has now announced his office will now examine "rulemaking" at NOAA and its regional fishery management council.
Eric Schwaab, NOAA's assistant administrator for fisheries, said he welcomed the "review as another opportunity to improve fisheries management." (See full statement in related story).
But, among his expressed interests, Zinser said he would evaluate how the New England Fishery Management Council operated and complied with the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
He especially put a focus on the so-called Standard 8, which directs NOAA and the councils for the eight regions — including New England — to take into account the "socioeconomic impact of actions on fishermen and fishing communities."
The IG's announcement comes as multiple studies of the social and economic harm to the fishing communities from the way the federal government instituted commodity trading system in catch shares are being readied for submission to NOAA as the foundation for a disaster declaration.
Zinser made his announcement in a letter to Congressmen. John Tierney and Barney Frank — who represent Gloucester and New Bedford, where mistrust of rulemaking has become rampant, and is thought by many, including New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang, to be manipulated by non-government, anti-fishing activists.
Zinser decided to take the assignment after discussions with Tierney and Frank and members of the fishing community.
"For too long, concerns have been raised about the fairness and transparency of the rules and regulations impacting our fishermen," Tierney said in a statement. "The inspector general's decision to investigate NOAA fisheries rulemaking is a positive development, and I appreciate Mr. Zinser's willingness to conduct this important work."
While noting that "we have had frustrations in our dealings with the federal government on behalf of the fishing industry," Frank said Zinser has been a "consistent bright spot."
His 2010 investigation into complaints of enforcement excesses — hatched, in large part, out of Gloucester — provided enough corroboration of abuse of the badge to induce a house-cleaning at the top of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's law enforcement arm and NOAA's Northeast Regional Office in Gloucester, though apparently no one has been punished or fired, only reassigned.
In May, based on follow-up investigations by a special judicial master, 11 businesses got a Cabinet level apology and more than $600,000 in reparations.
That investigation remains active, examining additional cases. In addition, Zinser, in his letter to Tierney and Frank, said he, too, has continued his original work, following up audit work on NOAA's Asset Forfeiture Fund and the agency's implementation of recommendations in the 2010 reports.
"We intend to initiate our rulemaking evaluation following issuance of our reports in those reviews," Zinser wrote.
"The commercial fishing industry is a cultural way of life and a principal component of the economy of Massachusetts," Tierney and Frank wrote to Zinser on Aug. 17. "The federal government's ability to successfully manage fisheries requires the active involvement and cooperation of the industry.
"The requested investigation is vital for our fishing industry and a culture that requires the trust of those empowered to manage and enforce their way of life," they wrote. "It is absolutely essential that rules and regulations be implemented in a fair and transparent manner."
It is a common industry complaint that the government manipulates its science — or uses bad science — as weapons to limit fishing unnecessarily.
Lang and others have stated their belief that the government is under the improper influence of anti-fishing activists.
Foundations — including those connected to Wal-Mart and other multi-national corporations — have invested more than $500 million in fisheries research grants, much of it to influence fisheries policies, according to research by fisheries consultant and columnist Nils Stolpe, whose findings can be found at www.fishtruth.net.
The previous investigation of law enforcement, by the IG was initiated by an email request from NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco after she was pressured to do so by the congressional delegation, which outlined the allegations of score-settling and other improper uses of the badge in years before Lubchenco took office.
This time, Zinser took the assignment directly from the congressmen, and his coming investigation will focus on Lubchenco administration of NOAA and the New England Fishery Management Council.
The Secretary of Commerce appoints council members, while NOAA controls its budget.
In the years before her appointment to head NOAA by President-elect Obama, Lubchenco was at the head of a powerful alliance of academic scientists, foundations and environmental non-government organizations which forged a strategy to emphasize — or exaggerate, as fishing activists and other scientists argue — the impact of overfishing, recommending policies that would limit or bar fishing entirely in marine protected areas.
The Environmental Defense Fund, where Lubchenco had been an officer and trustee, has become entwined in the Lubchenco administration's push to create the catch share management policy, which opened the door to commodities-style trading by large businesses and investors in fisheries that, for the most part, had been worked locally by owner-operated fishing boat businesses.
A 2005 proposal by EDF, said to be written for use in pitching foundations for grants, lays out a master plan for maximizing its influence on rulemaking on the New England fishery.
Leaked to the Times, which first reported it in 2009, EDF's proposal said, "The most important element of our strategy is to work the regulatory process from the inside, making aggressive use of our hard-won seat on the New England Fishery Management Council."
EDF went on to say how it lobbied the Secretary of Commerce in 2003 to get Sally McGee, then the senior staffer of the ocean program, appointed to the council. She has moved on from EDF to the Nature Conservancy, but remains on the New England fishery council.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.