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Audit findings rankle fishermen

NOAA faulted as rules change

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / July 12, 2010

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The disclosure that federal fishing police misspent millions of dollars reaped from fines has worsened relations between the government and New England fishermen as regulators orchestrate the most fundamental overhaul of fishing rules in the region’s history.

A recent audit found that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 172-member law enforcement office has 202 vehicles and 22 boats, including a $300,000 undercover vessel the manufacturer’s website describes as luxurious. Questionable overseas travel and vague expense submissions were also found during the Commerce Department inspector general’s review of an estimated $96 million account funded by fishermen caught breaking the law. It was the second critical report this year about the NOAA enforcement and legal offices.

Fishermen have long been mistrustful of federal officials who have enacted a web of complex rules to conserve fish in the last two decades. Yet the two groups have maintained an uneasy, but workable, relationship in recent years to conduct gear research, count fish, and go after those who steal from the sea. New rules that divide the total fish catch among groups of fishermen already had many suspicious that it could put them out of work; the recent revelations, some say, are destroying what little good will existed to see that program succeed.

“It used to be they would call, or we would call and say, ‘Did you notice this or that?’ You worked with them. . . . Now, no one is going to help them,’’ said Bill Lee, a former Rockport fishermen who says he quit the business after being fined $19,800 for not possessing a letter he was unaware he needed to catch yellowtail flounder. “We attempted to follow the rules. . . . They didn’t. This makes me feel brutally bitter.’’

On Thursday, US Representatives Barney Frank and John Tierney called for NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco to step down because of the controversy, although Frank backed down the next day, saying he would give her time to resolve problems.

Tierney, meanwhile, says he will file legislation in part to take away the “perverse incentive’’ NOAA police have to fine fishermen because they control the money that is collected.

Lubchenco issued her second statement in a week on the matter Thursday, saying she was “deeply troubled’’ about how the fund, known as the Asset Forfeiture Fund, has been used. She said fixing the problems is one of “NOAA’s top priorities’’ and issued a detailed directive to fix the enforcement and legal department and ensure accountability. Earlier this year she replaced Dale Jones as head of the Office of Law Enforcement.

Eric Schwaab, director of NOAA fisheries, said late last week that the agency was working hard to reestablish trust, especially as the new fishing rules take hold in New England.

“We understand that some of the concerns being expressed have the potential to spill over into some of the important management work with the fishermen,’’ he said. The agency is working hard “to rebuild public confidence in the fairness and transparency of our law enforcement,’’ Schwaab said.

Conservation groups defended Lubchenco, saying she was the only NOAA administrator in recent years who has attempted to identify and fix enforcement problems.

“Everyone who cares about the fisheries are taking the revelation of the inspector general’s analysis very seriously, from what I understand, no one more than administrator Lubchenco,’’ said Peter Shelley of the Conservation Law Foundation, a Boston-based advocacy group. “The first administrator to acknowledge and tackle this issue, even by bringing in an outside party, is now getting charged by members of Congress as being somehow derelict in her duties.’’

While the inspector general reports cover the entire country, their roots are in longstanding complaints from New England fishermen that fishing rules have become too complex for anyone to get perfectly right and that penalties were arbitrary and excessive and could take years to resolve. Fishermen say that even if they wanted to fight charges, the expense of doing so was too great and they were often forced to settle even if they believed they did nothing wrong. Congressional leaders took up their cause, bringing the issue last year to Lubchenco, who then asked the inspector general to investigate.

The first report, in January, concluded that the fish police and legal office lacked oversight and that the nearly $5.5 million in fines assessed in the Northeast between 2004 and 2009 were some 2 1/2 times greater than the amount levied in the second ranking fishing region and five times more than in others. The Northeast also had the greatest reduction in the fine payments fishermen ultimately paid, contributing to fishermen’s belief that fines were arbitrary and, at times, personal.

“As a permit holder, I get three or four letters a day sometimes,’’ said Dave Goethel, a New Hampshire fisherman and member of the New England Fishery Management Council. “Rules change all the time. Quotas are filled. open areas closed, trip limits change. . . . It’s not that hard to have a technical violation. I hear over and over they would fine someone and say, ‘We will forget about that and only fine you some small amount of money if you tell us about someone else.’ ’’

The second report, for which the inspector general had the accounting firm KPMG analyze the fishing fine fund, was even more critical. It said that the Forfeiture Fund received approximately $96 million between June 2005 and June 2009 and spent $49 million. NOAA officials, however, say they believe the fund took in less money.

“The results of KPMG’s review evidence a history of inattention within NOAA to a substantial and highly sensitive monetary function of the agency,’’ the report reads. “KPMG’s findings show that NOAA has administered the AFF in a manner that is neither transparent nor conducive to accountability, thus rendering it susceptible to both error and abuse.’’

The inspector general’s office is now investigating specific cases, with results expected in September.

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com.

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