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Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank Orders New Fishery Enforcement Penalties Returned to Some Fishermen and Businesses

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Friday, December 14, 2012
CONTACT OFFICE OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS
202-482-4883

Today’s action completes review of past cases dating back to 1994 to address complaints about conduct of NOAA enforcement program

In another step to reinforce the Commerce Department’s commitment to fair and effective enforcement of U.S. fisheries, Acting Secretary Rebecca Blank announced today that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will return fines to some fishermen based on the recommendations of an independent review. This review was conducted by a special master, Judge Charles B. Swartwood III (ret.), appointed by former Commerce Secretary Gary Locke in 2010 following on complaints about actions dating back to 1994. Acting Secretary Blank’s decision memo and the special master’s 554-page report closes the investigation of past cases involving complaints about the conduct of NOAA’s enforcement program.

Acting Secretary Blank’s decision memo directs NOAA to return a total of $543,500 to 14 complainants and to forgive the outstanding $151,266.66 in debt for two additional complainants. These individuals or businesses will receive their remittances within 30 days of receipt of payment information. The special master’s report she also released today found that NOAA personnel had in some instances “overstepped the bounds of propriety and fairness.” However, the report reaffirms that the agency has taken significant steps to reform the enforcement program by bringing in new leadership and establishing policies and procedures to ensure fairness and transparency. 

“Today marks the end of an extensive investigation into the conduct of NOAA’s enforcement program going back nearly two decades,” said Acting Secretary Blank. “In the course of acknowledging and rectifying mistakes, NOAA has instituted sweeping changes to its enforcement program to ensure that fisheries enforcement is fair and effective. It’s time to close the door on this chapter of NOAA’s past and move forward.”

In the memo issued today, Acting Secretary Blank accepted the special master’s recommendation of no action in 45 of the 63 total cases. For the remaining 18 cases in which remission or forgiveness of penalties was recommended, she accepted nine and changed the other nine to:

  • Increase the amount to be forgiven or remitted for two recommendations because her review of facts and materials involved led her to conclude that they do not go far enough to remedy unfair enforcement conduct.
  • Reduce the remittance for one recommendation involving conduct toward an on-board NOAA observer because it is essential that NOAA observers be able to depend on cooperation when they go out to sea on fishing vessels.
  • Reject two recommendations and reduce remittance for four recommendations because the fishermen involved were either fishing inside a closed area or fishing without a permit, and the penalty was assessed against the proceeds from a catch that was seized. Letting these fishermen retain the proceeds of a catch taken in violation of fisheries management regulations, whether intentional or not, would allow them the economic benefit from a catch that was unlawful and would be unfair to fishermen who abide by the rules.

“Acting Secretary Blank and I met in Washington, D.C. to discuss her reactions to my recommendations,” said Special Master Swartwood. “We had a lengthy discussion about the specific complaints for which she reached a conclusion that differed from my recommendation, and she outlined her reasons for doing so. I understand her rationale and believe the decisions she has made are reasonable and appropriate.” 

The process leading to today’s announcement began in June 2009, when the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) commenced a comprehensive investigation of NOAA enforcement cases dating back to 1994. This investigation was launched in response to concerns from the commercial fishing community and members of Congress. The OIG released its final report on September 23, 2010, detailing instances of alleged misconduct by NOAA law enforcement officials. That same day, former Commerce Secretary Gary Locke appointed a special master to review these cases.

Special Master Swartwood released the findings from his first investigation on May 17, 2011, recommending remittance totaling $649,527 for 11 complainants. Over the course of this investigation, other fishermen whose cases were not already under review came forward requesting consideration. Former Secretary Locke subsequently announced another special master’s investigation in March 2011 to ensure all of these cases were also reviewed. The results of this second investigation were released today. In addition, upon taking office, Acting Secretary Blank asked her staff to gather more information regarding NOAA’s response to the issues identified in Special Master Swartwood’s 554-page report and used this information to finalize her decision memorandum for today’s announcement. In doing so, Acting Secretary Blank sought assurances that NOAA had put changes into place to prevent future actions similar to those dating back to 1994.

During the past two years, Special Master Swartwood has reviewed hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, conducted over 100 interviews, and produced two reports totaling over 700 pages of text with over 7,000 pages of exhibits. As a result of the two reports under the direction of Secretaries Locke and Blank, the Commerce Department has directed NOAA to remit a total of over $1.1 million in penalties and forgive over $150,000 in outstanding debt. Of the 93 total cases reviewed, 27 were remitted or forgiven. 23 of these 27 cases originated in the Northeast Region.

For a full timeline of NOAA enforcement program improvements implemented over the course of this process, visit:  http://www.noaa.gov/lawenforcementupdates/timeline.html

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