Fisheries summit aims for more accountable law enforcement
Government admits missteps
The nation’s top fishery managers met yesterday with industry leaders from California to Maine to discuss ways to improve the 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 US 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 that with only about 170 agents to enforce the law in an area 1.5 times the size of the continental United States, 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 and 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.’’
About 60 people attended the summit, including recreational and commercial fishermen from both coasts, academics, environmentalists, regional fisheries managers, and fisheries lawyers.
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 said the fines amounted to a bounty because NOAA kept the money.
In January, Zinser’s office released a report saying that Northeast fishermen have been fined more than double the amount levied against those in other regions and that 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.