The U.S. Commerce Department’s inspector general expects to make public in November a procedural review of how NOAA and its regional fishery management councils make rules governing the fishing industry.
The review of procedures that go into the setting rules and regulations for fisheries was undertaken in January at the request of Congressmen John Tierney and Barney Frank, and amid concerns that non-governmental environmental organizations were given undue influence over fisheries mandates and limits.
“Our review of fishery management councils and rulemaking will be conducted in phases and result in interim reports produced at several intervals,” said Ann C. Eilers, the principal assistant inspector general for audit and evaluation, in a release dated Jan. 10. “In this phase of the review, we will evaluate the role of NOAA and the fishery management councils in the fishery rulemaking process and the transparency of the rulemaking process.”
”We are anticipating having a report ready for the public in November,” Clark Reed, spokesman for the inspector general, said Friday in a telephone interview.
The impetus for the request by Tierney and Frank, they said in a letter to Inspector General Todd Zinser dated Aug. 17, 2011, was the “high degree of mistrust” that existed in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its subsidiary agencies by the fishing industry.
In public statements, Tierney, who represents Cape Ann, and Frank, whose district includes New Bedford, both said they worried that NOAA, had fallen under the influence of anti-fishing interests, especially environmental non-government organizations holding an anti-fishing bias.
Both congressmen have expressed disdain for the leadership of NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, who came to office from a high office in the Environmental Defense Fund with a new national fisheries policy — catch share commodification — that encourages external investment and is seen by many as bringing undue consolidation on fishing fleets, with larger and better capitalized boats and businesses gobbling up quota from the traditional, smaller independent boats that cannot compete, in part due to federal regulations and catch limits. Tierney and Frank have called for Lubchenco’s dismissal, as have Sen. Scott Brown and Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican.
The Tierney-Frank letter to Zinser was written before a series of discouraging stock assessments raised questions about the viability of the industry and the accuracy of NOAA science. They cited a report by a consulting group headed by Preston Pate Jr., director of the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, that “identified scientific shortcomings within the agency’s new fishery management system.
“This is very troubling” the congressmen wrote, “because an agency management system will only be as effective as the science it is based upon.”
The unexpected, dire benchmark assessment of Gulf of Maine Cod made last year and released this year as well as more general but equally discouraging updated assessements of Georges Bank stocks have sent the industry into a desperate downward spiral and fed cynicism that NOAA doesn’t know how to catch fish and therefore assess stocks — a chronic belief on the working boats since the so-called “Trawlgate” scandal more than a decade ago.
Trawlgate was keyed to the revelation that NOAA was misusing its gear for trawl surveys making it impossible to catch fish the way a commercial trawler did; the agency’s trawls thus caught fewer fish, leading to more pessimistic assessments and thus tighter limits, which NOAA officials refused to change despite acknowledging the trawling errors.
No one is certain whether some fumbling by NOAA is involved, whether the catch share system has spurred “pulse fishing” on the inshore grounds by big boats with trawls out of scale for the shallows of Stellwagen Bank, or possibly whether climate change driven by water currents signals new patterns for the fish that have not yet been discovered — theories that are not mutually exclusive.
Zinser’s office emerged as a font of revelations into an ugly world of NOAA law enforcers preying on fishermen with impunity during more than a decade.
The exposes which were triggered by a congressional delegation letter to Lubchenco in June 2009 led to the case studies of a special judicial master into the worst excesses of law enforcement and a cabinet-level apology and more than $600,000 in reparations to the victims of the most egregious cases.
Special judicial master and investigator Charrles B. Swartwood III was also commissioned to do a second set of case studies. In March, Swartwood submitted his work to the Commerce Department for redactions and release, but the agency, for no expressed reason, has failed to make the second report public despite pressure from Tierney, Frank, Rep. William Keating — who has a South Shore and Cape Cod district — and Sens. Brown and John Kerry.
Swartwood has studied more than 60 additional cases, and if the pattern of the first report is continued, the government would need to issue another apology and make more reparations to fishermen harmed by NOAA law enforcement.
Lubchenco has chosen not to fire or punish any of the participants in the ugly abuse of the badge. All parties involved in the IG and special master’s first set of criticisms of law enforcement excess have been shifted to other jobs and allowed to continue their government careers without interruption.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.