Associated Press Writer- August 4, 2010
BOSTON (AP) — The nation's top fishery managers met Tuesday with industry leaders from California to Maine to discuss ways to improve the troubled fishery law enforcement system amid findings of mismanagement, misspending and questionable fines.
The summit at a Washington hotel, broadcast on the Internet, followed months of revelations about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's law enforcement division that have fractured relations between the agency and fishermen and have prompted lawmakers to call for the resignation of NOAA head Jane Lubchenco.
Recent findings by U.S. Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser described the misspending of millions of dollars in fishing fines and showed heavier fines for Northeast fishermen, who have long complained of unfair treatment. Zinser also said the head of the law enforcement division, Dale Jones, wrongly ordered dozens of files shredded during his investigation.
Jones has since been replaced and NOAA has made various changes to better track fines and mend relations with the industry. NOAA hopes to have broader changes in place by October 2011.
"We know we must earn the confidence of the public," Lubchenco said in opening remarks. "We seek to be good partners, accessible and open, as well as tough, but only when necessary."
Vincent O'Shea, head of Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, said with only about 170 agents to enforce the law in an area 1.5 times the size of the continental U.S., both law enforcement and the fishing industry must cooperate with each other.
NOAA is charged with enforcing the nation's fisheries laws, aimed at protecting species through such measures as closing sensitive fishing grounds or mandating gear that allows smaller fish to escape.
Maggie Raymond, co-owner of two fishing boats and head of Associated Fisheries of Maine, urged enforcement officers to understand the burden that complex regulations place on the average fisherman. She showed a multicolored map illustrating the numerous regulations and urged officials to educate fishermen before punishing them when they spot consistent violations.
"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."
Tuesday's summit included about 60 attendees, including recreational and commercial fishermen from both coasts, academics, environmentalists, regional fisheries managers and fisheries attorneys.
Lubchenco ordered Zinser's investigation last year after fishermen complained that they were being assessed five- and six-figure fines for minor violations by investigators who viewed them as criminals. Fishermen also claimed the fines amounted to a sort of bounty since NOAA kept the money.
In January, Zinser's office released a report that said Northeast fishermen have been fined more than double the amount levied against fishermen in other regions and said there was no process to review if the fines were fair. It also criticized the disproportionate number of criminal investigators in an agency where most violations are non-criminal.
In addition, findings from an audit conducted by Zinser's office and released last month showed that money collected from fines was poorly tracked and misspent on items such as a $300,000 luxury boat for undercover work. NOAA's comptroller now controls revenue from the fines.
In calling for Lubchenco to step down last month, congressmen including Reps. John Tierney and Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Walter Jones of North Carolina cited the problems with NOAA's law enforcement office in describing what they said were the agency's broader troubles with fishermen. Frank said the White House told him replacing Lubchenco wasn't the answer.
On Tuesday, fisheries attorney Eldon Greenberg said recent steps to ensure high-level NOAA review of all proposed charges and penalties was a good first step to ensure fairness. But he urged various other measures, including reopening some closed cases and releasing to the public the resolution of cases so the rules are better understood.
Cameron Kerry, general counsel for the Commerce Department, which includes NOAA, said fair and vigorous enforcement is key to protecting the fish and fishing communities, even if some bristle under it.
"We can't make everyone happy," Kerry said. "A law without enforcement is just an aspiration."