A week after NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco met privately with 16 environmental organizations to discuss fisheries issues, the Commerce Department inspector general spent a day in New Bedford gauging whether to open an investigation in alleged untoward influences of the so-called "greens" on fisheries and ocean governance.
The petition for the probe was penned in August by Congressmen John Tierney and Barney Frank, based largely on charges by New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang that fisheries policy for years has been driven by non-government organizations with agendas to protect fish from fishermen.
The argument is that the influence has led to policies that are weakening the fishing industry and are at odds with the Magnuson-Stevens Act's mandate to maximizing economic output while conserving the resource.
Among the 16 groups at the meeting were 10 which had recently received grant funding from at least one of four mega foundations pursuing agendas to limit or more aggressively regulate fishing or privatize and commodify the common wealth resource.
The Obama administration is pushing catch share privatization, which in New England's groundfishery, is concentrating landings with the best capitalized businesses while forcing out mom-and-pop fishing boats.
That status was confirmed for the first time by a NOAA report that showed 21 Gloucester-based groundfishing boats dropped out of the industry in 2010.
The groups in the room last week with NOAA chief Lubchenco and her staff included: the Environmental Defense Fund, the primary driver behind catch shares; American Rivers, Center For American Progress, Environmental Law Institute, MCBI, Marine Fish Conservation Network, Mission Blue, National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Ocean Conservancy, Oceana, Pew Environment Group, Restore America's Estuaries, Seaweb, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund.
Eight of the groups in recent years were granted more than $44 million from the Walton Foundation, controlled by Wal-Mart's founding family, and its stated priority is catch share commodification. Because of its investment in the catch shares' campaign — via investment with EDF — a Wal-Mart boycott has been launched by the Recreational Fishing Alliance and regional groups.
"(These groups) are the architects of the bureaucratic agenda and overreach," Lang said in a telephone interview Thursday.
Lang's comments to the Times came after Inspector General Todd Zinser had completed his day of informal fact-finding and interviewing in New Bedford. Among those who briefed Zinser and his staff was Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk, who shares Lang's theory and concerns.
Lang said NOAA's close coordination with the environmental nonprofits and cross pollination via recruitment from their ranks "blurred the line between NOAA's agenda and the NGOs (non-government organizations)."
Since Lubchenco, who had served on the EDF board, became NOAA's administrator in early 2009, Lang, Frank, Tierney and Kirk have led a growing industry resistance to what Lang calls "improper influence."
Zinser told the Times he would speak with Tierney, who represents the ports of the North Shore, and Frank, whose district includes New Bedford and Fairhaven, before deciding on whether to begin an investigation.
Meanwhile, notice of the greens' gathering with NOAA's leadership, held Thursday, Sept. 16, was contained in an internal email by Eric Schwaab, Lubchenco's pick to head the National Marine Fisheries Service. The memo was leaked to the Times.
The meeting was not publicized, in advance or afterward. But NOAA did respond to questions about it.
Andy Winer, NOAA's director of external affairs who participated, described the meeting as an opportunity to satisfy numerous requests for face time with Lubchenco.
Winer said the meeting informally honed in on three topics: illegal fishing in international waters, data poor stocks and how to manage them, and problems emerging from the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
Winer said multiple priorities were discussed in an informal, two-hour roundtable at the offices of the Ocean Conservancy, where Margaret Spring, Lubchenco's chief of staff, previously had been director of marine programs.
No decisions were made at the meeting, but Lubchenco and her team left with food for thought, Winer said.
Ellen Bolen, Ocean Conservancy's associate director of government policy, provided a similar briefing to the Times.
Still, the fact that the event attracted Lubchenco — who, in June, begged off an invitation to appear before a Senate subcommittee hearing on fisheries issues, sending Schwaab and explaining he is the hands-on fisheries executive, is raising eyebrows within the industry.
"I can't help but wonder when or where you reach a point where a collaboration like this (discusses) planning strategy for some of their 'pet' causes crosses the line," said Jim Kendall of New Bedford Seafood Consulting.
"This is the most corrupt administration in modern history," said Jim Donofrio, executive director of Recreational Fishing Alliance.
"They're slippery," said Bob Jones, executive director of Tallahassee, Fla.-based Southeastern (commercial) Fisheries. "NOAA is blatant in their policies with the green machine. Without transparency and written records, it's like living under an oligarchy."
"Why do the wacko enviros have so much influence on our resources that so many fishermen, their families, and communities depend on?" said Bob Zales, a Panama City, Fla., charter skipper and activist.
Many of the green groups at the meeting had worked the corridors of Congress to shape and toughen the 2006 reauthorization of 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Act, which, over decades, has helped lift overfished stocks to — or close to — sustainability. They won the day easily over fishing interests. Both Tierney and Frank voted against the reauthorization.
In all, 10 of the groups at the table with Lubchenco have landed about $130 million in grants by four foundations with agendas to limit fishing and expand the introduction of catch shares.
The Walton Foundation distributed more than $40 million in grants, about half of that to EDF, Walton's partner in pushing catch shares into U.S. fisheries.
Pew Charitable Trusts gave more than $60 million to Oceana, the ocean-centric group whose celebrity face is actor Ted Danson.
The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation granted EDF more than $8 million, and the David and Lucille Packard Foundation also granted to EDF as well as The Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Defense Council and Ocean Conservancy.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.