, Salem, MA

April 17, 2014

Our view: Judge's ruling sends grim message on NOAA accountability

The Salem News

---- — It’s been nearly nine years now since NOAA enforcement agents, carrying out an unauthorized entry and raid into the then-Gloucester Seafood Display Auction, openly bullied workers and boasted that they were “accountable to no one.”

That 2005 scene, documented through testimony and backed in an Inspector General’s 2010 report that found widespread uses of excessive force and penalties against Northeast fishermen, became something of a rallying cry for the fishing industry and its supporters. It has never been forgotten, even as the federal government handed out reparations to fishermen and other businesses harmed by NOAA’s thuggish enforcement actions.

But in a ruling last week, a federal judge delivered a troubling message to the industry regarding those NOAA agents’ claim that their agency can, in essence, do whatever it wants. U.S. District Court Judge Richard G. Stearns basically confirmed it’s true.

For all the legalese contained in a 33-page ruling dismissing the state’s lawsuit targeting NOAA’s science and regulatory policies, the bottom line is that the agency has no obligation to seek out better practices.

That’s despite an often dismal scientific track record that brought us the 2000 “Trawlgate” scandal — when the agency admittedly used nets that allowed targeted species to swim right through, yet still used the data to set fishing limits, given it was the latest and “best available” — and the infamous 2009 pollock survey, which the agency later had to concede was off by a mere 600 percent.

The judge found that the state and Attorney General Martha Coakley — joined in the suit by New Hampshire — failed to make a case that NOAA and the Department of Commerce failed to adequately consider the economic impact on the industry and especially on fishing communities when setting its policies and regulatory limits.

That, of course, is despite ramming through a catch-share allocation system that is driving smaller, independent boats out of the business while larger corporations buy up more and more quota, and despite plunging the Northeast groundfishery and a few other states into recognized “economic disasters” that are now being targeted with $75 million in federal aid.

To call the ruling troubling may be the ultimate understatement; wrongheaded and unsubstantiated might be better places to start.

But in a nutshell, the judge has given NOAA vast deference to go about assessing stocks and leveling its mandates as it wants — and interpreting the governing Magnuson-Stevens Act on economic impact requirements as it wishes, as well.

Brian Rothschild, president and chief executive officer of the Center for Sustainable Fisheries — and one of fishing’s most respected scientists — noted that “there was superior data that was based on a simpler science.” And he’s right.

Most notably, the industry’s offer to carry out side-by-side research trawls with fishermen joining NOAA’s research vessel Bigelow — and its predecessor, the appropriately named Albatross — could have gone a long way toward confirming data that NOAA stands by, but fishermen and UMass marine scientists openly dispute. While the judge acknowledged that a side-by-side, joint research trawl was “a proven methodology that (NOAA’s National marine Fisheries Service) could have deployed,” he added that NMFS was under no “affirmative obligation” to collect new data.

Really? Especially given that NOAA’s data collection has been so flawed in the past? And it’s downright scary to note that this government agency, which has no “obligation” to check its work or do better, has used this data to drive the family fishing business to the brink of collapse — just as our federal government and corporate America did to the family farm.

Coakley said last week she was uncertain whether to file an appeal, and we hope she gives that decision a long, hard look.

If this ruling stands, we now know for sure: NOAA is truly “accountable to no one.”