January 22, 2010

Inspector General’s report is critical of NOAA’s fisheries law enforcement

The Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Commerce issued a report yesterday that was stingingly critical of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s enforcement of fisheries regulations.

NOAA is the federal agency responsible for enforcing U.S. fishing laws and regulations.

The report is the result of a seven-month investigation that was begun in mid-2009 after requests from members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., and other members of the state’s Congressional delegation.  They were joined in the effort by members of Congress from northeastern states.

The report found "systemic, nationwide issues adversely affecting NOAA’s ability to effectively carry out its mission of regulating the fishing industry...particularly in the Northeast Region." 

The Inspector General said, "We find it difficult to argue with those who view the process as arbitrary and in need of reform."

Among other things, the Inspector General report found:

•    “. . . systemic nationwide issues adversely affecting NOAA’s ability to effectively carry out its mission of regulating the fishing industry.  These issues have contributed significantly to a highly-charged regulatory climate and dysfunctional relationship between NOAA and the fishing industry.”
•    NOAA’s “civil penalty assessment process is arbitrary and unfair.”
•    NOAA’s workforce composition is dramatically misaligned to its mission – “Only about two percent of its caseload has been criminal-investigative, yet over 90 percent of its enforcement personnel are criminal investigators – a clear imbalance.”
•    NOAA’s Asset Forfeiture Fund – which contains proceeds from civil penalties it collects – had a balance of $8.4 million as of Dec. 31, 2009, but department officials “are not aware of the fund’s having ever been audited” and “the account under which they are maintained has weak internal controls,” leading the IG to launch a pending “forensic review of the fund.”

Jones called yesterday for a major overhaul of federal fisheries law enforcement.

“It is appalling that a federal law enforcement agency is this poorly run,” said Congressman Jones.  “Systemic problems as outlined in this report cannot continue to be ignored.  This administration needs to act immediately to overhaul the policies, procedures, and personnel responsible for this mess.  I will do everything in my power to see to it that they do just that.” 

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, shared Jones’ outrage.

"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," she said. “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.” 

The senator also stated, "I pledge to do all in my power, including pursuing legislative action, to ensure that our fishermen are treated fairly while necessary regulatory enforcement practices are carried out.”

The full text of the report can be found here: http://www.oig.doc.gov/oig/reports/2010/OIG-19887.pdf.

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