GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

February 3, 2010

Editorial: NOAA policing chief's reaction to report a shameful dismissal


The top federal official for fisheries law enforcement apparently believes that the best way to respond to a scathing report on his performance is to ignore the substance of it.

Todd Zinser, the U.S. Department of Commerce's Inspector General, issued a 26-page report last month that found "systemic, nationwide issues adversely affecting NOAA's ability to effectively carry out its mission."

Those problems have included inconsistent, heavy-handed enforcement by what can only be called rogue agents, essentially accountable to no one.

And the allegations even in this somewhat preliminary IG's report — the office is rightfully still looking into specific instances of "abusive treatment" — already amount to confirmation of complaints that fishermen have been making and appeals the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction has argued for years.

The response from Dale Jones, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Law Enforcement?

In a message to his staff leaked to the Times, he said he "concur(red) with the need for us to improve our communications and relationships with the fishing industry."

Yikes.

Look, the only communication problem at this point is that Jane Lubchenco, NOAA's chief administrator, has not clearly communicated to Jones the message that he has to clean out his office and go.

Lubchenco, of course, has been equally detached. Her only practical response to the IG's findings so far has been to call for a "national summit" on enforcement policies and practices — and, for whatever reason, to include environmental and academic groups with commercial and recreational fishermen.

Pathetically, neither has directly addressed the IG's report. And its findings should not prompt a summit — they must prompt action. And that action must include, at the very least, the immediate suspension of Jones and other superiors, especially in the Gloucester-based Northeast regional offices, where the fines have been the most heavy-handed and the enforcement the most inconsistent.

To date, the IG's office has noted:

That NOAA has an asset forfeiture fund — the fines reeled in from alleged violations by fishermen — of $8.4 million, yet the fund has not been effectively audited.

That fines levied in the Northeast region, which he also cited as the region most lacking in higher supervision, were 250 percent greater than those in the next highest region, and 500 percent greater than in any of the remaining four regions.

That fishing regulations are unevenly applied: Gloucester fishermen were getting fined for lacking a so-called "authorization letter" for yellowtail flounder, while those in New Bedford were not.

That NOAA's enforcement arm, the National Marine Fisheries Service, gives its agents the message that they are involved in criminal investigations rather than civil enforcement. Indeed, the department is made up almost entirely of criminal investigators. The reason for that is a perverse financial incentive — the "criminal" ranking pays better.

It is no doubt that mindset that led federal fishing agents in 2006 to enter the Gloucester Seafood Auction after hours, without a warrant and without authorization. That case, while not specifically noted in the IG's report, is documented through a Gloucester Police report obtained by the Times.

Just weeks before the IG's report was issued, Jones wrote in a "Director's Minute" report to agents that he doubted the IG would be able to substantiate complaints of "vindictive and overzealous" actions by enforcement agents. "We have nothing to fear," he wrote.

Now that the report is out, his only reference to the substance of the findings is that he "may disagree with and will refute some of the perspectives."

They are not perspectives. They are findings. And if Jones can refute them, he ought to do so immediately, with solid evidence.

So far, he apparently thinks that if he ignores or belittles the IG's findings, they will soon be forgotten.

They won't be, and they can't be — not this time.

Simply put, this report is not going away.

Jones and his top-ranking colleagues must.