ELLSWORTH — Almost six years ago, a Department of Commerce Inspector General’s inquiry into NOAA Fisheries law enforcement 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.”
Earlier this month, the NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) issued its first ever annual report on its staffing, budget and nationwide enforcement of federal fisheries and related marine resource protection laws. The report represents a huge step forward for an office whose operations, first disclosed by Inspector General Todd Zinser in 2009 and 2010, led to congressional calls for its then director to resign.
At the time, the inspector general said that fisheries law enforcement, particularly in the Northeast, relied far too much on criminal prosecution and asset forfeitures for violations of complex laws that were often the result of innocent mistakes or misunderstandings.
Zinser also found that assets forfeited by fishermen were frequently used to pay for the purchase of vehicles and boats for the enforcement office and for travel apparently unrelated to official business.
There were also allegations that the then head of OLE shredded documents related to Zinser’s investigation. He was ultimately reassigned to another post in NOAA Fisheries.
OLE’s jurisdiction includes some 3.36 million square miles of open ocean, more than 95,000 miles of U.S. coastline, 14 National Marine Sanctuaries and four Marine National Monuments and high seas and international trade relating to U.S. treaties and international law.
To cover this extensive territory, OLE agents and officers are spread among five divisional offices and 53 field offices throughout the nation. One of those field offices is located in Ellsworth. Another is in Portland, which, according to NOAA is one of the top 10 international seafood landing ports, by weight and value, in the nation.
Additionally, OLE partners with local enforcement agencies and other federal organizations to maximize efficiency. In Maine, OLE works with the Marine Patrol through a Memorandum of Agreement with the Department of Marine Resources.
Between 2010 and 2015, the staff of the OLE has been cut from 234 employees to 189 — a drop of just over 19 percent. The number of special agents and enforcement officers has fallen from 165 to127.
According to the report, the decline has been budget-driven.
For fiscal year 2015, OLE had a budget of $65 million, of which $36.7 million went toward funding enforcement and surveillance, including salaries and benefits for enforcement officers and special agents. Another $18.2 million went toward funding cooperative enforcement with outside agencies such as DMR. Of that, $5.7 million was split among seven agencies in the Northeast. Alaska, the state with the nation’s largest fisheries, received some $2.8 million to fund enforcement activities.
The OLE has also been active on the international front. Working with other NOAA offices, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, OLE has increased efforts to combat illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing around the globe. The office has also led workshops in Mexico, Honduras, Ghana and Indonesia aimed at improving international enforcement of fisheries laws.
Closer to home, OLE has 42 full-time employees in its Northeast Division headquartered in Gloucester, Mass. In fiscal 2015, which ended Sept. 30, the Northeast Division dealt with 813 incidents, ranging from a complaints to investigations. The majority of the incidents were related either to the Magnuson-Stevens Act — the principal federal fisheries regulation law — and the Atlantic Coastal Fish Cooperative Management Act. Federal enforcement officers are involved in an ongoing investigation of the illegal harvesting and interstate transportation of elvers into Maine.
The OLE was also involved in the prosecution of the former operations manager the Spruce Head Fishermen’s Co-op for tax evasion and for violation of the Lacey Act. The case arose from his participation in shipping nearly $1.8 million worth of the co-op’s lobster in interstate commerce and keeping the proceeds.