Written by Adrianne Madden
May 25, 2011
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke last week announced that a number of steps are being taken to remedy problems investigators have found with NOAA's fisheries enforcement practices. NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco also apologized to New England fishermen who were wronged by overzealous enforcement actions.
"Today we acknowledge and rectify past mistakes, apologize to the fishermen and businesses hurt by these mistakes and rededicate ourselves to work with the fishing industry to sustain and grow fishing jobs," Lubchenco said. "I believe today marks a major turning point in NOAA's relationship with America's fishermen, and in particular fishermen in New England."
Well, maybe. It's not going to be that easy to repair the damage that's been done over the years.
The apology, along with Locke's announcement that $649,527 in returned fisheries enforcement penalties is being paid to 11 individuals or businesses, is a start. But the agency's actions will determine whether it's indeed serious about improving its relationship with New England fishermen.
Locke's announcement came in response to Special Master Charles B. Swartwood III's report on enforcement cases, some dating back to the early 2000s, that Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser previously flagged as questionable.
Locke appointed Swartwood, a retired judge and former Chief Magistrate Judge of the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, to review 30 cases. Swartwood's report concluded that in some cases, NOAA's enforcement program had "overstepped the bounds of propriety and fairness."
Locke is accepting all of Swartwood's recommendations that the law allows and is taking additional action in several cases.
"Enforcement ," Locke said, "has to be fair, uniform and consistent."
Alas, Swartwood's report (http://www.noaa.gov/lawenforcementupdates/specialmasterreport.pdf) and the May 17 episode of "Dan Rather Reports" (No. 18 "The App Bubble"), now available on iTunes, (http://itunes.apple.com/us/tv-season/dan-rather-reports-season-6/id414506840) suggest enforcement has been anything but that. Both paint a picture of an agency behaving as if it has an axe to grind against fishermen — Gloucester fishermen in particular — and is accountable to no one.
Locke said in his announcement last week that in almost every instance in which Swartwood finds overly aggressive or unfair enforcement conduct, "there was little meaningful management or supervision." Yet after legal review ,"none of the conduct described in the report undertaken by any individual NOAA lawyer or law enforcement officer warrants disciplinary action against any employee mentioned in Judge Swartwood's report," he said.
If that's the case, fishermen no doubt wonder what type of egregious behavior would warrant disciplinary action?
Which is why NOAA's apology has largely fallen flat, at least amongst Gloucester fishermen. As the Gloucester auction's attorney, Paul Muniz of Boston-based Burns & Levinson, said in a prepared statement, "despite a finding of unjust enforcement by NOAA, the Secretary's unwillingness to discipline those responsible for these abuses still falls short."
If the steps Commerce and NOAA are taking do bring simplicity, clarity, fairness and accountability into their dealings with fishermen, maybe then the industry will — eventually — say, "Apology accepted."
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