Service sides with fishermen over rules review

Posted Sept. 30, 2010, at 7:05 a.m.

BOSTON — The head of the federal fisheries service said Wednesday he’s begun a review of how New England fish stocks are managed, months after a regional official called the process “antiquated and ineffective.”

The review would be done within a year, said Eric Schwaab, head of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Last week, the U.S. commerce secretary ordered a review of several questionable penalties assessed against fishermen in the last decade after a federal report revealed abusive treatment and high-pressure tactics by the nation’s fishery enforcement officers.

“We know that there are challenges and we know there are always opportunities for improvement,” Schwaab said.

Fishermen have long faulted regulators for relying on what they consider flawed or outdated science to make rules they say are unnecessarily restrictive and don’t do enough to preserve fishing communities and businesses.

And last year, the Northeast’s fishery management system was criticized by John Pappalardo, chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council, which advises federal officials on fishing rules. Pappalardo wrote that the nation’s fishery laws are requiring managers to do more to restore fish stocks, but the clunky bureaucracy wasn’t up to the task.

“I share a strong desire to improve an antiquated and ineffective bureaucracy in New England and trust there is enormous potential for improvement in the management of our federal fisheries,” he wrote in a December letter to the U.S. Commerce Department.

Pappalardo raised a good point about the system’s increased policymaking and scientific burdens, Schwaab said Wednesday.

“There’s a lot of new responsibilities on our system, and it’s important to take a step back and assess the degree to which the system is working or can be improved,” he said.

He said some key questions for the review include how to more quickly get the latest science to decision makers, such as the health of certain fish species, and whether the rulemaking system is flexible enough to swiftly adapt to new information.

The review will focus on the effectiveness and working relationships among three entities: the federal Northeast Regional Office, which houses administrators; the Northeast Fisheries Science Center; and the New England Fishery Management Council, an 18-member body of fishermen, environmentalists and government officials.

Preston Pate, former chair of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, will lead the review, Schwaab said.

Officials hope the lessons from the New England review can be applied around the country. The nation’s fishery enforcement office is enduring tough scrutiny, including a federal review that found fiscal mismanagement, bias against fishermen and high pressure tactics to extract large fines.

On Wednesday, the former agent in charge at the Northeast’s embattled fishery enforcement office said he will retire after stepping down earlier this month from his post overseeing the region.

Andrew Cohen said his departure after three decades in federal law enforcement was long planned and he was not forced out. But he said putting new leadership in place would be beneficial, “symbolically, if nothing else.”

Cohen said he was proud of the work he and his office had done, and certain he’d helped protect honest fishermen. He said the criticism has come mainly from a vocal minority who were caught stealing and were upset the law was being enforced.

“I don’t think that we are being criticized for enforcing the law by the people who understand what we do,” he said. “I think we’re being criticized for enforcing the law by the people we caught cheating.”

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