GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

August 3, 2010

Summit ignores fishermen

NOAA officials continue to insist they won't look back

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

Despite gentle provocation from a former chief counsel of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, top officials of the scandalized federal fisheries law enforcement system Tuesday gave no sign they are rethinking a plan to march forward without looking back for miscarriages of justice.

Indeed, in the day-long PowerPoint presentations, breakout groups and flip charts at law enforcement summit called by NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco, no official at the podium of a Washington, D.C. , hotel even acknowledged that Eldon Greenberg, a former NOAA chief counsel now in private practice, had broached the subject of retrospective justice.

Speaking in the middle of the day's event, Greenberg nudged NOAA to deal with the obvious looses ends of cases that helped trigger an industry resistance last year, beginning in Gloucester, that eventually found the U.S. senators and congressmen from Massachusetts echoing legislative calls for the U.S. Inspector General to intercede and for Lubchenco to step down.

Greenberg acknowledged that the proposal was "controversial," and "can be viewed as a slippery slope" but also said he saw the need for "some internal equity."

Greenberg was the sole speaker out of 12 who represented the fishing industry, which has been victimized by unsupervised NOAA police harassment and excessive fines, according to the general findings of the Commerce Department IG Todd Zinseer, who began his continuing national investigation in June 2009.

Cameron F. Kerry, general counsel to the NOAA's parent Commerce Department, Lubchenco, NOAA chief counsel Lois Schiffer and National Marine Fisheries Service chief Eric Schwaab, who has titular authority over the NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement, used the podium to comment on Greenberg's recommendation.

During a recess, however, Schwaab said in an interview with SavingSeafood.com, the industry news aggregator, that the agency has been given "nothing specific" by the inspector general. While he said NOAA expects future reports from the IG to focus on "a number of cases," Schwaab gave no hint what the agency might do.

"We'll deal with that report when we get it," he said.

Schwaab and Schiffer caused a furor within the congressional offices for East Coast fishing communities when in response to the first report from the IG they informed Lubchenco, their boss, of their decision not to look back. In a single sentence in a memo buried beneath a cover memo from Lubchenco to Zinser, discussing his findings, Schwaab and Schiffer seemed to set NOAA policy.

U.S. Sen. John Kerry, Cameron Kerry's older brother, was among the congressional chorus condemning the idea of moving beyond the scandal with new policies without settling the unfair scores imposed on fishermen and businesses by NOAA police and lawyers.

"NOAA's excessive penalties and retaliatory enforcement actions have caused deep distrust among our fishermen," the senator said in May. "The Dale Jones scandal was an exclamation point and an underline of what was already a frayed relationship ... We need a full accounting of what happened so we can put the pieces back together and move forward together. I look forward to talking with Secretary Locke about this."

He was referring to the IG's finding that Jones, then chief of NOAA law enforcement, had shredded official documents in his possession and, along with many NOAA agents and lawyers, had used proceeds from the Asset Forfeiture Fund, made up of fines against fishermen, for foreign travel not related to casework. Lubchenco vowed last week that the NOAA would better track fines and mend relations with the industry.

Schwaab announced that Alan Risenhoover, a career fisheries official had been installed temporarily in Jones' office, without ever mentioning Jones' name. Jones' status, despite numerous filings under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, remains unknown.

Congressmen including John Tierney and Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Walter Jones of North Carolina cited problems with NOAA's law enforcement office in describing what they said were the agency's broader troubles with fishermen when calling for Lubchenco to step down. Frank said the White House told him replacing Lubchenco wasn't the answer.

A theme of the "summit" conference was "consistency, transparency and communications."

Maggie Raymond, co-owner of two fishing boats and head of The Associated Fisheries of Maine, displayed a multicolored jigsaw puzzle of a map with various shapes and colors, showing the areas and regulations affecting fishermen. Raymond said law enforcement must understand that complexity, and she urged officials who spot consistent violations to educate fishermen first before punishing them.

"I would suggest that signals confusion and not intent," Raymond said. "Some outreach on the docks may be a way to get people into compliance quickly."

In an immediate run-up to the summit, a previously released study re-emerged to make the case for tougher law enforcement against the New England fishing industry.

The Lenfest Ocean Program redistributed the findings of a year-old study financed by the Pew Environment Group, namely that illegal catches by New England fishermen were rampant, estimated to be as much as 18.5 percent of the total catch, rewards for breaking the law were enticing, as much as $5,500 a trip in illegal income, and that deterrence is minimal.

At least one fishing industry leader smelled a rat.

"Isn't it odd, or should I say lucky, that a Pew-funded 'anti-commercial fishing report' would be published, printed in beautiful four-color pages and distributed several days in front of the national law enforcement summit making it available for hand-out to national media," Bob Jones, executive director of the Southern Fisheries Association, wrote to NOAA officials.

"The 'emperor has no clothes on' is what comes to my mind. I have suspicions about the report and hope the authors will be able to explain how they came up with such damning results aimed at commercial fishing just in the nick of time."

Lubchenco, who has ties to Pew, and her minions invited about five dozen federal and state fisheries and law enforcement officials, lawyers, and nongovernment organizations, and representatives of recreational and commercial fisheries to the summit.

The summit was facilitated professionally.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report by staff writer Richard Gaines, who may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464 or rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.

Summit online

To watch the summit, visit: http://noaaenforcementsummit2010.ecr.gov