BOSTON -- A nationwide review of how the nation's fisheries are policed found Northeast fishermen were given double the fines of other regions and urged reforms to make the penalty process appear "less arbitrary and unfair."
The report released Thursday by the Commerce Department's inspector general followed persistent complaints by New England fisherman.
Though it acknowledged that complaints of abusive treatment "are not widespread," the report recommended more oversight of the enforcement division by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials. It also questioned the dominance of criminal investigators on a law-enforcement staff that deals mainly with misdemeanor infractions.
On Thursday, NOAA announced various steps aimed at ensuring fairness, including revising regulations, developing an internal policy manual and improving communications with regional management councils, especially in the Northeast. It also said it would convene a national summit on its enforcement policies.
"We will take steps to improve the system and to reinforce confidence in the system -- in the interest of the fisheries resource and all who are dependent upon its viability," NOAA head Jane Lubchenco said in a statement.
Massachusetts state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, a Democrat who represents the fishing town of Gloucester, said the first step is a change in mentality to see fishermen as small businessmen, not criminals.
"This is not about cops and robbers," she said. "It's about fishermen complying with the regulations."
U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said she was "appalled" by the inspector general's findings.
"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," Snowe said in a statement.
Lubchenco requested the review in June at the urging of local lawmakers, who said mistrust between enforcement officers and fishermen was at an all-time high.
The report, which included interviews with 225 people around the country, found a total of $5.5 million in fines for the Northeast. The next closest area was the Southeast, with $2.2 million in fines.
The inspector general said fishermen believe the fines are cheaper to settle than to fight. For instance, one Northeast fishermen said he was fined $75,000 and had his catch seized for fishing in an illegal area, though tracking data showed he was moving to fast too have fished there. He settled for $25,000.
Fishermen expressed concern that fines amounted to a "bounty" because NOAA keeps the money. The report said NOAA couldn't determine how the money was used due to "weak internal controls," and the inspector general's office said it was commissioning a forensic audit.
The report also faulted NOAA for giving its enforcement attorneys broad discretion on determining the amounts of the fines, but no process to review if the fines are fair.
"As such, we find it difficult to argue with those who view the process as arbitrary and in need of reform," it said.
The report questioned staffing in the enforcement division. The division is about 90 percent criminal investigators, though 98 percent of its caseload was noncriminal between January 2007 and June 2009. It said there are "indications in the record that this work force composition was driven by considerations of the better pay and benefits that apply to criminal investigators."
The report included a response from NOAA, which said that its enforcement attorneys "adamantly deny" selective or vindictive prosecutions. They said fines might seem excessive when viewed in isolation, but "penalties must serve as a deterrent to future violations" and also reflect violations' harm to the environment.
NOAA enforcement officials said the vast majority of fishermen follow the law, but "a small and extreme minority exists who regularly violate regulations and they are the most vocal with their complaints."
In a statement, Massachusetts Senate President Therese Murray said Thursday she was "deeply troubled" by the report.
"The depth and breadth of the lack of management and oversight in NOAA's law enforcement operations is astounding," said Murray. "These findings underscore what we have known for a while, our fishermen are being steamrolled by an agency whose philosophy is that they are automatically criminals."
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