October 13, 2010
The Hubris of NOAABy Mike Johnson
Fisherman face declining fishing allocations, stormy weather, and fluctuating prices as routine dangers of their profession. But federal regulators from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration are becoming even scarier.
This essay gives my assessment of the NOAA Fisheries Service Summary Report, which covers a series of meetings between the NOAA bureaucracy and the northeast commercial fishermen. There is a colossal cultural gap. I spoke with one of the NOAA team that assembled the report. She told me that they worked very hard and are extremely proud of the results, and I have no doubt about her sincerity. You be the judge.
The meetings were the result of a recommendation by the Department of Commerce Inspector General. He blasted the NOAA Fisheries Service for significant management, control, and image deficiencies. He suggested some trust-building gesture to the fishing community. In response, NOAA held a series of rapport-enhancing fisheries training meetings from Maine to New Jersey in June and July.
I went to the meetings in Portsmouth, NH and Portland, ME. I was appalled.
The meetings were polite, occasionally emotional, and completely useless. Classic cross-purposes! The fishermen wanted answers to their grievances; the government offered pedantic recitals of regulations.
Government management was strangely absent. The junior government personnel present responded sincerely and politely, but when faced with an area where NOAA might be wrong, they were intransigent. They have been carefully taught. NOAA is never wrong.
I was told that minutes and attendance lists would be provided. My expectations (my bad -- one should never assume the conduct of another, particularly NOAA) were of minutes describing two groups with different viewpoints but a common goal trying to reach a win-win resolution.
There's an old saying in the business world: "He who writes the minutes controls the meeting." It seems to go double in the bureaucratic world. It is a symptom of Obsessive Regulatory Disorder (ORD).
The actual Summary Report by NOAA at the end of September reminds me of a catechism. NOAA took the inputs from the meetings and boiled them together into a single set of some one hundred issues. NOAA then provided the party-line response for each issue, the Bible according to NOAA (and NOAA is never wrong).
Let me get specific on three issues, two that NOAA included and another that NOAA omitted. I did not select these as horrible examples, although they are; I selected them as very important to the fishing community.
The first example is a double-dose of outrage. The bad conduct that defines the issue is the first outrage, and the government's evasion of the issue in the Summary Report is the second.
As you might expect, the fishermen take at-sea safety very seriously. There were several reports of government observers/at-sea monitors (ASM) inadvertently damaging the emergency safety radios, called EPIRBs, carried by the fishing boats. Nowhere was the government's intransigence more evident than in the discussion of EPIRBs. The Gloucester meeting was particularly contentious.
The regional coordinator for the observer program was interviewed by the Gloucester Daily Times. She thought the incidents described at the Gloucester meeting were "isolated incidents" and that some of the fishermen complaining "had actually done the damage themselves." Intransigence? How about insulting?
The Summary Report presented the issue thus: "What is NOAA doing about reports of mishandling of EPIRBs by ASMs?" The NOAA response to the issue discusses the development and use of an "EPIRB Visual Inspection Card." The card is a good idea and should cut down on the need for physical EPIRB inspections. However, the card is not relevant as a response to the issue at hand, as it was developed some time ago, is documented in the Fisheries At-Sea Monitor Program Manual, and should have been in use at the time the complaints were generated. The response is green smoke and mirrors, all the more shameful because it goes directly to the safety of the fishermen.
In actuality, NOAA did take positive action to mitigate the issue. On 6 July, the regional coordinator sent a "Sign and Return" letter to observers/ASMs covering the policies on EPIRBs including the inspection card. This action is not included in the Summary Report. Why? Because it suggests culpability?
The second example deals with perhaps the prime complaint of the fishermen: the extremely low allocations for fish this year, and presumably in years to come. When allocations for 2010 were made, the pollock allocation was extremely low, threatening fishermen with being completely shut down for the season if they caught just a few pollock by mistake. In June, the allocation for pollock was raised some 600%, prompting discussions at the meetings. In the Summary Report, NOAA boiled the discussions down to the simple question, "How can you explain a nearly six fold [sic] increase in the pollock catch levels?"
NOAA proceeded to answer their condensed version of the discussions in an agonizingly narrow manner. The new allocation is based on newer data and a more robust computer model.
NOAA ignored the implied question from the fishermen relative to the pollock allocation -- how can we trust any of the NOAA allocations given a mistake of the magnitude of 600%? This is where the cultures clash. Returning to the Bible according to NOAA, the government is infallible. There is no mistake. The May allocation was based on the best available science and therefore proper in May. Ditto for the June allocation.
Technically, NOAA is correct. Both answers represented the best available science at their respective times. But come on! The best available science is prone to 600% swings? Get real!
There was another issue that NOAA left out of the Summary Report in its entirety. It came up at the Portland, ME meeting that I attended and concerned dogfish allocations.
In mid-June, NOAA announced that dogfish were considered a fully recovered species -- a perfect 4.0 on the NOAA Fish Stock Sustainability Index (FSSI). A fisherman from Maine asked why the allocations were still so low if the stock was fully recovered. A tense debate that I didn't fully follow went on for several minutes. The fisherman was told that the overall allocation was being increased by 20% but that his daily trip limit remained at 3,000 pounds. NOAA subsequently published a clarification of their reasoning in keeping the dogfish allocations low. As best as I can determine, the best available science that awards dogfish with the highly praised 4.0 FSSI has nuances that will keep allocations low through 2015.
Fishermen are reporting dogfish so plentiful that they are virtually jumping aboard, begging to be caught. Fish eat fish, and dogfish are one of the worst of the predator species. They are killing off other species and impeding other rebuilding efforts -- a bloody nuance that doesn't factor into the allocations. See Dr. Nils Stolpe's article on dogfish.
In August, NOAA announced that the (artificially low?) dogfish limit had been reached and shut down the species until November. A few days later, the Gloucester small business that processed dogfish was forced to close, and seventy people lost their jobs.
The bland Summary Report has no heart. The NOAA task is necessary, and regulation is required, but there should be some recognition that lives are being ruined as a result.
The culture of NOAA will not improve as long as big government condones its actions. Change the Congress and the Executive to a small-government philosophy. Remember in November.
Mike Johnson is a concerned citizen, a small-government conservative, and a live-free-or-die resident of New Hampshire. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.