AND HOW THE SYSTEM HAS BEEN MANIPULATED TO BENEFIT A SELECT FEW
I have been ask recently to elaborate on the issue of fines and penalties as they pertain to NOAA Fisheries Law Enforcement (NOAA LE). This is a question of…is there justice? The good news, yes, there is indeed justice. The bad news is that this justice is NOT for those working in the commercial fishing industry. I have heard it stated within NOAA that “the way to tell if a commercial fisherman is lying is to see if his lips are moving”. This is a joke, of course, but also a very sad commentary on a system that pretends to have both the fishing industry, and protection of our natural resources, as it’s priorities. We all know that as with any industry there are both the good and the bad, such is life. However, Law Enforcement by its very nature should not have that luxury Mr. Jones! Each and every agent needs to be good and well trained and dedicated to the mission of his or her agency, especially management.
Let’s take a look at how fines and penalties are put forth and just what is the most important factor in determining how, why, and whom is subject to enforcement action by NOAA LE. The answer is simple, MONEY!
I cannot tell you the number of times I have been involved in official conversations concerning a “fisherman’s ability to pay”. What they are saying here is that a large commercial fishing organization is much more likely to receive an administrative fine as opposed to a criminal one. The other side of the coin, a small time individual fisherman with little money or assets would be much more likely to be made a criminal (charged criminally). Simply based on the fact that NOAA LE would have less chance of collecting money from them, as “you can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip”. A NOAA LE form of debtor’s prison (if you will).
In addition media coverage “publicity” also carries a lot of weight with NOAA LE management. A criminal case obviously would hold the public’s and news organizations’ attention. Thus a criminal case would garnish fame and fortune for NOAA LE much more so than a hushed settlement reached for an as yet undetermined amount of money.
As such a large corporation with a fishing violation that would not be headline grabbing could expect to be charged in an administrative action and as such is able to negotiate their way to a “cost of doing business” conclusion. A large company that may refuse to pay up front and fight the issue or a small time operation with limited monetary resources could then be made “criminals” by default, at the whim of NOAA LE management (Dale Jones). This based on the fact that NOAA LE could or would not immediately benefit from a quick administrative action.
Permits sanctions? Much the same as the money, willingness, or ability to pay issue, permits come into play and are used as extortion in many cases. While a large corporation with many vessels can afford to pay up rather than face being put out of business, small operators cannot. In addition a large conglomerate may be able to weather one or two vessels put out of action. The person or small businessman with one boat and trying to feed his family can ill afford the loss of a permit. Thus they better pay up fast or else. How often have I heard “how can we get them out of the fishery” Well.....Take away the permit. This is like taking a hammer from a carpenter, or the oven from a baker. You take away a man’s pride, and livelihood, when you play games with his life this way.
Next in importance are, of course, political concerns, their friends, his friends, friends that could do something for LE, or an important person’s friend….well you know how that works. In NOAA LE it just works overtime. Ask any Special Agent that has tried to make a case on an “influential person”. That is a highway to nowhere, to be ignored at promotion time.
Finally I must make it clear that this is not the desired or the preferred way of doing business by the vast majority of enforcement personnel within NOAA LE or those General Counsel attorneys that I have been privileged to work with. You must know that these people are under the gun and are subject to more injustice and fear than the loss of a permit. Those that stand up are knocked down and those that stand up again are made targets of reprisal. If you think that there is fear of reprisals and retaliations against those in the fish industry, please take a look inside NOAA OLE. The list is long and the names read like that of the titanic's passenger list. Maybe someone in congress will finally step up to protect employees of NOAA LE who lead a life of principled actions and ethical judgments.
Many heroes are out there; they are coming forward in increasing numbers but without the voice of the commercial fishing industry and individual fishermen like you the truth will not surface. Those that come forward and speak of wrongdoing are labeled as troublemakers and complainers. NOAA LE employees will stand with you but they cannot however stand alone. They have tried before and suffered the consequences, which range from being forced out early, given a no show LE job or passed over for promotion. You in the seafood industry have to work with them now and in the future. Work together and you will see that the men and women, the common employees of NOAA LE, want to do the right thing.
My name is Steven Garfield Coker I am a former NOAA Fisheries Law Enforcement Supervisor. I make no effort to hide my identity.