Angers Op-Ed: NOAA Turns a Blind Eye

How manipulation and corruption are making a mockery of federal fisheries management

This question often comes up in discussions about the federal fisheries management process: Why are people who profit from the harvest and sale of America’s marine resources allowed to sit on management bodies that make regulations governing those resources?

It’s a good question.

The most contentious issue in the Gulf of Mexico is privatization of the red snapper fishery in which millions of dollars’ worth of a public resource was gifted to select commercial operators to harvest for their own personal profit. Gifted, for free. Yet, someone who owns red snapper shares can sit on the Gulf Council and vote on every aspect of that fishery. And one does.

Over the past few years, certain members of the charter/for-hire sector have worked to launch a privatization program in which they, too, could own shares and use red snapper as their own. Yet, on the Gulf Council, people who own charter businesses and stand to directly benefit from the program are never required to recuse themselves from votes on that program.

In the South Atlantic, two commercial fishermen who are actually sitting members of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council are actively promoting an exempted fishing permit to explore privatization of public marine resources for themselves and select other operators there.

It seems incredible these things are allowed to happen, particularly when NOAA guidelines state that “An affected individual is not permitted to vote on a Council decision that would have a significant and predictable effect on any financial interest held by that individual.”

However, in contrast to that language NOAA sets the bar to avoid conflict of interest situations shockingly low for fishery management council members. Basically, all a person charged with managing our public marine resources has to do to stay out of hot water is declare everything on his or her financial disclosure forms. That’s it.

Want to be a council member while owning several hundred thousand dollars of red snapper shares? No problem – put it in your financial disclosure form and cast your votes. Want to be a charter/for-hire operator and cast votes on a plan to bestow private ownership of red snapper to the charter/for-hire sector? No problem – just state that you own a charter business and away you go.

Greene essentially hid a business interest with a commercial red snapper shareholder, cast votes on matters that stood to directly benefit him and his business partner, and yet somehow enjoys the protection of NOAA General Counsel

NOAA clearly isn’t requiring ethical purity from its council members, but the agency appears to take a harsh view of those failing to abide by these low expectations. The PENALTIES section of the form states: “Knowing and willful falsification of information required to be reported may subject you to criminal prosecution or subject you to civil penalties. It is unlawful for an affected individual to knowingly and willfully fail to disclose, or to falsely disclose, any financial interest required by the Magnuson Stevens Act, or to knowingly vote on a Council decision in violation of this Act. In addition to the criminal penalties applicable, a violation of this provision may result in removal from Council or SSC membership.”

That sounds fearsome, but what must actually happen to move NOAA to take action on conflict-of-interest matters? It clearly depends on the individual, the views they espouse, and the situation.

As the owner of a charter fishing business, Johnny Greene holds a recreational seat for the State of Alabama on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, but he was discovered late last year to have a private business interest that was not disclosed. The interest was in a business that owns red snapper shares called Waters Fishing LLC in which Greene was named as the registered agent in paperwork filed with the State of Alabama in 2012. The matter was recently brought to the attention of NOAA General Counsel in a letter, but NOAA reached a curiously apologetic conclusion for Greene’s failure to disclose his involvement with Waters Fishing LLC.

NOAA General Counsel acknowledged that while Greene had failed to disclose his involvement, he claimed to only receive mail for Waters Fishing LLC. His involvement with the company was “as a personal favor” to Mr. Waters and he did not consider himself to have “employment” with the company. In conclusion, NOAA found that the arrangement between Greene and Waters was based on a personal relationship, and although it should have been disclosed, Greene’s understanding otherwise may have been reasonable. Since Waters Fishing LLC “is reportedly being dissolved, Greene’s relationship with the company will not be an issue in the future.”

That’s remarkably forgiving. Greene essentially hid a business interest with a commercial red snapper shareholder, cast votes on matters that stood to directly benefit him and his business partner, and yet somehow enjoys the protection of NOAA General Counsel. It is even more remarkable when you realize this is not the first time Greene has run afoul of disclosure requirements.

In 2015, Greene and two other sitting Gulf Council members were forced to disclose their position as board members for the newly formed Gulf Seafood Institute when recreational anglers brought their involvement to light. It was something of a mystery at the time why Greene, a recreational representative who owns a charter company, elected to become intimately involved with an entity promoting commercial seafood harvesters in the Gulf, but it makes a bit more sense in light of his undisclosed involvement with Waters Fishing LLC. What doesn’t make sense is why NOAA sees fit to be so lenient with a repeat offender. Fail to disclose once, shame on you. Fail to disclose twice…

The time period during which Greene’s business involvement was concealed was possibly the most fractious and controversial in the council’s history, as issues such as reallocation (Amendment 28) and sector separation (Amendment 40) made their way through the process. Votes on matters related to those two amendments were incredibly divisive and were often decided by a single vote. Since it is now thoroughly unclear exactly what or whom Greene was representing at the time, at the very least NOAA should be reviewing every single vote and action he took during that tumultuous time.

NOAA’s guidelines on the topic of conflict of interest are already lenient to a fault, leaving the entire Council process open to manipulation and corruption as it moves to privatize public marine resources. The agency’s willingness to overlook violations of their own meager standards makes a mockery of the entire federal fisheries management system.

Read more at SportfishingMag.com.