BOSTON — An independent review of the bureaucracy that devises New England’s fishing rules said the system is “beset with problems” and called for reforms, including more accountability about whether the regulations actually work.
Other recommendations in the report released Tuesday included improving confidence in the fishery science, more emphasis on growing the fishing industry and uniting behind a long-term plan for the fishery that doesn’t currently exist.
“There is a great deal of frustration among all … groups over the difficulty (some might say inability) to make progress and having to work in an environment of contention and mistrust,” the report read.
Eric Schwaab, the head of the National Marine Fisheries Services, ordered the review last year after the chairman of New England’s regional rulemaking body called the management process outdated and ineffective.
On Tuesday, Schwaab announced several recommendations in response to the new report, including streamlining communication with fishermen and the public, improving scientific collaboration with the industry and making data collection easier so rules are based on the most recent science.
Schwaab was clear real change won’t be immediate. On Tuesday, he announced a 30-day public comment period on the report.
“The challenges we face in New England, home of the nation’s oldest fishing communities, did not happen overnight,” he said. “Lasting solutions will take some time.”
Schwaab said the report highlights ways managers can do better, but it doesn’t erase the good work they’ve done, including improving the health of numerous species.
“It doesn’t mean the progress we are making with the fishery management council is not real,” he said.
The review comes as New England nears the April 30 end of the first fishing year under a new management system in which most fishermen divided into groups, called sectors, and shared an allotted catch of each species.
The system aims to give fishermen flexibility to react to the market as species rebuild, but some fishermen say the allotments were set unfairly low and are killing the industry.
The review released Tuesday followed a December 2009 letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke by John Pappalardo, chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council, which advises federal regulators on regional rules.
Pappalardo argued the tangled bureaucracy couldn’t meet the many new requirements of the nation’s fishing laws, calling the system driven by “process and protocol,” not outcomes.
The review was led by consultant Preston Pate, former chairman of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. It included confidential interviews with 179 people, including fishermen, regulators, scientists and environmentalists.
The report focused on the work and relationships between federal regulators at the Northeast Regional Office, scientists at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center and the regional management council.
The review praised the dedicated staff in each group, increased scientific collaboration with fishermen and the transparency of the rulemaking process, though it called it “complex and slow.”
But it described dispirited staffers who were duplicating efforts and lacked a shared strategy for success. Pate said at a news conference Tuesday that it’s critical for managers to come up with a long-term vision of what the fishery should look like, “so that [fishermen] can have some opportunity to make wiser business decisions, to have some enthusiasm or optimism that there will be a healthy fishery for all harvesters.”
The report cited “pockets of low-performing council staff” and said some members “admit to avoiding difficult decisions because they fear political fallout.”
It cited a leadership void and declining morale at the science center and internal frustration at the regional office about glacial, bureaucracy-clogged responses to information requests, which end up making the agency look uncaring.
In general, the report described tendencies to shift blame,” an overall victim mentality” and confusion about where the buck stops.
“When we asked interviewees who/what organization is ultimately accountable if something goes well or fails, few could give a definitive answer,” the report read.
It recommended “defining clear, objective criteria for determining the success of a management decision.”
It said regulators needed to re-establish fishing industry growth as a top priority, and work to build confidence among fishermen that the data they collect on fish stocks is sound and will be more quickly applied when new rules are devised.
Pate’s report noted that similar reviews of the system in the past had arrived at similar conclusions, but little changed. All groups, it said, “must be engaged and committed to the change process and work together to create a new way of operating.”