For years, struggling fishermen in Gloucester and New Bedford have voiced a common complaint: the federal agents assigned to police the beleaguered fishing industry were overzealous, mean-spirited, and seemingly driven by personal vendettas. Now, a pair of federal investigations into the agency have vindicated those concerns. A review by a retired judge released last month outlined instances of “overzealous, abusive, or arbitrary conduct’’ by the Commerce Department’s fish police. Runaway regulators assessed giant fines for picayune offenses; an earlier investigation by the department’s inspector general produced internal documents that show officials glibly bantering about imposing crippling penalties — fines that were then funneled directly into the agency’s own coffers.
To its credit, the Obama administration has begun taking steps to restore professionalism in the agency. The head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s law enforcement office, Dale Jones, was pushed out last year. Almost $650,000 in unjustified fines were returned to fishermen, and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke issued an unprecedented apology. The administration is on the right track — and the Massachusetts congressional delegation deserves credit for demanding action.
Still, fixing the culture at NOAA must go beyond personnel changes; there are structural flaws at the law enforcement office that need to be fixed to prevent abuses in the future. In particular, Congress needs to disentangle the fines the agency collects from its budget, so that there will be no suspicion that agents are bounty-hunting simply to make their budget numbers. Separating the two would underscore that protecting threatened fish stocks, not collecting fines, is the agency’s ultimate metric for success.
Severing the agency’s budget from its fines is especially critical because of the pattern of fiscal mismanagement that also emerged in the Commerce Department’s investigation. Until recently, fines were deposited in what was essentially an NOAA slush fund, which the enforcement office used to purchase hundreds of cars, a luxury boat, and international travel, including a $109,000 junket to Norway. The investigation found no evidence the fund had ever been audited. It had few internal controls. In other words, even as NOAA tormented fishermen with huge fines for small infractions, the enforcement office was not upholding basic auditing standards itself.
In response to the reports, NOAA has enacted new guidelines that forbid spending money collected from fines on vehicles — and limit, but do not ban, overseas trips. Representative John F. Tierney has proposed legislation placing further restrictions on the use of the fund. Ultimately, though, the enforcement office should be funded with a Congressional appropriation, like most other federal agencies. Any fines it collects should go to the Treasury.
At a Senate hearing arranged by Senator Scott Brown last Monday at Faneuil Hall, fishermen complained that their distrust of NOAA agents was so great that they avoid seeking guidance on how to comply with complicated fishing rules. Doing so, they are convinced, would only invite a potentially ruinous inquiry. That dynamic needs to change. NOAA should also discipline agents who commit abuses; an official who testified at the hearing suggested the agency didn’t have that authority to fire officials responsible for the misconduct identified in the investigations. If that’s the case, Congress should grant it to managers, and then accept no excuses if it’s not used.
The fishing industry is central to the economy of coastal New England. Protecting this economic lifeblood — not protecting its own budget — has to be NOAA’s overall goal. Personal vendettas have no place in law enforcement agencies, and neither does even the appearance that perverse financial incentives are tainting their work.