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Review criticizes fishery policies

Urges changes in enforcement, penalty process

By Jay Lindsay
Associated Press / January 22, 2010

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A review of how the nation’s fisheries are policed found that fishermen in the Northeast were given double the fines assessed in other regions. A report on the review urged changes to make the penalty process appear “less arbitrary and unfair.’’

The report released yesterday by the Commerce Department’s inspector general followed persistent complaints by New England fishermen.

Though it acknowledged that complaints of abusive treatment “are not widespread,’’ the report recommended more oversight of the enforcement division by officials of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It also questioned the high proportion of criminal investigators on a law-enforcement staff that deals mainly with misdemeanor infractions.

The NOAA announced various steps yesterday aimed at ensuring fairness, including revising regulations, developing a policy manual, and improving communications with regional management councils, especially in the Northeast. It also said it would convene a national summit on its enforcement policies.

“We will take steps to improve the system and to reinforce confidence in the system, in the interest of the fisheries resource and all who are dependent upon its viability,’’ said a statement by Jane Lubchenco, head of the NOAA.

State Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante, a Democrat who represents Gloucester, said the first step is seeing fishermen as small businessmen, not criminals.

“This is not about cops and robbers,’’ she said. “It’s about fishermen complying with the regulations.’’

US Senator Olympia J. Snowe, Republican of Maine, said she was appalled by the inspector general’s findings.

“I pledge to do all in my power, including pursuing legislative action, to ensure that our fishermen are treated fairly while necessary regulatory enforcement practices are carried out,’’ Snowe said in a statement.

Lubchenco requested the review in June at the urging of lawmakers, who said mistrust between enforcement officers and fishermen was at an all-time high. The report, which included interviews with 225 people around the country, found $5.5 million in fines for the Northeast. The next closest area was the Southeast, with $2.2 million.

The inspector general said fishermen believe the fines are cheaper to settle than to fight. One Northeast fisherman said he was fined $75,000 and had his catch seized for fishing in an illegal area, though tracking data showed he was moving too fast to have fished there. He settled for $25,000.

In a statement, state Senate President Therese Murray said yesterday she was “deeply troubled’’ by the report.

“The depth and breadth of the lack of management and oversight in NOAA’s law enforcement operations is astounding,’’ said Murray. “These findings underscore what we have known for a while: Our fishermen are being steamrolled by an agency whose philosophy is that they are automatically criminals.’’

Fishermen expressed concern that fines amounted to a bounty because NOAA keeps the money. The report said NOAA could not determine how the money was used due to weak internal controls, and the inspector general’s office said it was commissioning a forensic audit.

The report also faulted NOAA for giving its enforcement lawyers broad discretion on determining the amounts of the fines, but no process to review whether the fines are fair.

“As such, we find it difficult to argue with those who view the process as arbitrary and in need of reform,’’ it said.