Washington, DC — Responding to complaints from independent monitors of U.S. fishing fleets that they are discouraged from reporting violations, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has agreed to improve how those offenses are handled, according to an agency document posted by the Association for Professional Observers (APO) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). NMFS concedes that current protocols for violations such as shark-finning, illegal by-catch and marine pollution offenses are “inadequate” and will develop a new “uniform, transparent and consistent procedure for collecting and reporting all potential marine resource violations” to law enforcement by this fall.
These findings are contained in a NMFS report of an Administrative Inquiry dated January 25, 2013 responding to a complaint filed by APO and PEER in late 2011 on behalf of Fisheries Observers within the Pelagic Observer Program covering the mid-Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. They work for private companies under contract with NMFS to monitor commercial fisheries’ compliance with catch limits, by-catch rules and protections for whales, dolphins and sea turtles, among other regulations.
The report examined Observer accounts of being told that fisheries violations, such as shark-finning, shooting seabirds and marine pollution (MARPOL) were not of interest to NMFS. While disputing some of those accounts, the agency conceded that:
- There are no forms for even reporting certain violations, such as seabird shootings;
- Other violations are not reported to agency law enforcement; and
- The only record of many violations is Observer field notes which are “not digitize or stored electronically but reside as the original paper records in trip files.”
In a limited NMFS survey of Fisheries Observers, one stated “I was not encouraged to document [violations] but I have done so.” Another reported being told marine pollution violations are “not on our plate” while a colleague recalled being told “You’re going to see MARPOL violations but don’t get upset. Roll with it. Plastics in particular.” Still another admitted “Not aware that I could report.”
“All these violations degrade marine resources and should not be selectively ignored,” said Elizabeth Mitchell, President of the Association for Professional Observers, noting that there are approximately 700 professional observers accompaning commercial fishing vessels in 42 different fisheries, logging an estimated 60,000 days at sea. “Observers are the key to providing objective information about what is actually happening in our fisheries.”
It is not clear whether the Commerce Department’s Inspector General will accept the NMFS report, or undertake further review or require additional remedial action. The APO/PEER complaint, among other things, asked for an audit of Observer field diaries against logbooks to measure the true extent of violation underreporting.
“It seems clear from the defensive and narrow nature of its report that the National Marine Fisheries Service would prefer that Observers stay out of sight and out of mind,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that NMFS conducted no evaluations or reviews of Observer programs during the past five years, except for this one prompted by a formal complaint. “While it is good that the agency has promised reform, it has still not spelled out a standard for making sure that marine protection laws are actually enforced.”