A nationwide review of how the nation’s fisheries are policed has found that Northeast fishermen were given double the fines of other regions, and it urges reforms to make the penalty process appear “less arbitrary and unfair.”
The report, released Thursday by the Commerce Department’s inspector general, followed persistent complaints by New England fishermen.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, came down hard Thursday on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for what she called “egregious mismanagement” of federal fishing law enforcement in the Northeast.
NOAA is supposed to enforce federal laws designed to conserve and manage the nation’s fisheries. Although the agency is known more for science than law enforcement, it oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Office of Law Enforcement.
Complaints that agents have been using overly tough law enforcement methods, including extremely heavy fines for those found exceeding catch limits, caused the Department of Commerce inspector general to commission the just-released report.
Though it acknowledged that complaints of abusive treatment “are not widespread,” the report recommended more oversight of the enforcement division by NOAA officials. It also questioned the dominance of criminal investigators on a law enforcement staff that deals mainly with misdemeanor infractions.
The report also faulted NOAA for giving its enforcement attorneys broad discretion in 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.
The report included a response from NOAA, which said that its enforcement attorneys “adamantly deny” selective or vindictive prosecutions. They said fines might seem excessive when viewed in isolation, but “penalties must serve as a deterrent to future violations” and also reflect the violations’ harm to the environment.
NOAA enforcement officials said the vast majority of fishermen follow the law, but “a small and extreme minority exists who regularly violate regulations and they are the most vocal with their complaints.”
At least one official in Maine believes the complaints originated hundreds of nautical miles away.
“The Maine Marine Patrol and NOAA law enforcement [in Maine] have not experienced the outcry from commercial fishermen that they have in Massachusetts,” said Col. Joseph Fessenden of the Maine Marine Patrol on Thursday afternoon. “We don’t receive the complaints. We’ve got enough of our own problems here with fishermen fighting amongst themselves.”
Meanwhile, Snowe said, “I am appalled at the stunning breadth and depth of the Inspector General’s findings of gross mismanagement within all levels of NOAA’s law enforcement community. … That the agency would allow its agents to continue running roughshod over hardworking fishermen, employing a law enforcement force consisting of 90 percent criminal investigators when the vast majority of its cases are civil in nature is by all accounts a travesty.”
Joining Snowe in condemning the report was Massachusetts Senate President Therese Murray, who said Thursday she too 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,” Murray said. “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.”
On Thursday, NOAA announced steps aimed at ensuring fairness, including revising regulations, developing an internal 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 Jane Lubchenco, undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere.
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 a total of $5.5 million in fines for the Northeast. The next-closest area was the Southeast, with $2.2 million in fines.
The inspector general said fishermen believe the fines are cheaper to settle than to fight. For instance, 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.
Glen Libby, head of the Port Clyde-based Midcoast Fishermen’s Association, said that he hasn’t seen any difficulties with law enforcement agents. Libby also sits on the state Department of Marine Resources Advisory Council, a group that ultimately reports to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
“If you’re a continual lawbreaker, I suppose you would have a problem,” Libby said. “For the guys who play by the rules, there’s not much of an issue.”
The six-month review was carried out between last June and December, according to a memorandum from Inspector General Todd Zinser addressed to Lubchenco.
“Based on our review to date, allegations of abusive treatment are not widespread,” he wrote. “However, I feel that it is important that we do all we can to get to the bottom of these concerns and the facts surrounding these cases.”
Some of the report’s recommendations include “substantially” greater management and oversight of the agency’s regional operations systems and a “reassessment” of the Office of Law Enforcement’s work force composition.
Snowe pledged to do “all in her power” to ensure that fishermen are treated fairly.
There are three full-time federal agents working in Maine, Fessenden said. The agency also contracts with the Maine Marine Patrol to make sure fishermen with federal permits are complying with the law. In 2009, that contract was worth $780,000, he said.
While Maine fishermen are indeed frustrated with the federal agency, it’s not because of unfair law enforcement issues, Fessenden said.
“The level of frustration I hear from fishermen is that the amount of regulations is mind-boggling. There are just too many laws and rules.
“It’s difficult to keep track of,” he said. “If anything, Marine Patrol tries to be sensitive to new regulations and rules. We try to be fair. We’re looking for compliance.”
To read the report, visit http:///www.oig.doc.gov/oig/reports/2010/OIG-19887.pdf
The Associated Press contributed to this report.