Federal Fisheries Council Has A Long History Of Secrecy

In 2006, more than 100 Native Hawaiians concerned with traditional and customary fishing practices gathered at the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu.

The conference — called a puwalu — was designed to give Native Hawaiians a stronger voice in fishery policy in nearshore areas managed by the state.

But it was the federal fisheries manager — the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council — and its longtime executive director Kitty Simonds that organized and paid for Native Hawaiian participation in the puwalu.

The gathering and several others like it over the next year ultimately resulted in the creation of the Aha Moku Advisory Committee, put in place by the Legislature in 2007. The group, whose members are appointed by the governor, advises the state Board of Land and Natural Resources from the perspective of Native Hawaiian knowledge, built over generations, to balance land and ocean resources and sustain healthy communities.

More recently, Wespac has been behind the formation of a new statewide group, this one called the Association of Aha Moku Councils.

A Civil Beat Investigation

But when Suzanne Case, the head of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, tried to find out why Wespac was mucking around in what is clearly state policy, she got stonewalled by Simonds.

And Case is even on the council. She is the state government representative and is a voting member.

Yet multiple letters to Simonds over the past two years have turned up little beyond generalities when it comes to what Wespac is doing to organize residents — and Native Hawaiians in particular — to weigh in on state fisheries management and land use policies.

How much money has Wespac spent on this particular effort? Case asked. Where has the money come from, who is it going to and what’s it being used for?

“I have written to Kitty Simonds three times to ask her ‘what is she spending on aha moku,’ and three times she has not answered that question,” Case said in a recent interview.

It’s an all too familiar story when it comes to Wespac and Simonds. The council has long had a reputation for secrecy and blocking information about its operation, especially when it comes to its budget and spending.

In August, Simonds finally wrote back to Case. She acknowledged that Wespac had spent about $700,000 since 2006 on the puwalus, the aha moku organizing effort and associated costs.

DLNR Suzanne Case at the Legislature.

Suzanne Case, head of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, wants to know why Wespac has become involved in state fishery issues and how much money it is spending on the effort.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But she sidestepped questions on the source of the funds other than to describe the money generally as coming from “cooperative agreements with the U.S. Department of Commerce and numerous other sources.” Similarly, she provided no detail on where the money was going beyond “vendors, service providers, contractors and meeting participants.”

Case says she does not consider that an adequate response to the questions. And she is troubled by the fact that a federal official is clearly dodging a legitimate inquiry from the state.

State resource managers are worried that the nearshore fisheries — particularly bottomfish — are in significant decline. The 12 designated bottomfish areas have been closed for decades to let the stocks recover but DLNR, under pressure from Wespac, recently agreed to open up four areas as a test to see if a sustainable fishery could be rebuilt.

But instead of waiting to see how the test areas do, Simonds has been pushing on the federal level for the reopening of all bottomfish areas to commercial fishing. At the same time, Wespac’s active involvement — including financing the aha moku process — suggests a renewed ground-level effort to influence state policy.

For Case, that is stepping over the line.

Case said the original Aha Moku Advisory Committee has turned out to be a very good thing for the state. It has helped state resource managers make meaningful decisions with input and information they might not otherwise have had.

Longtime Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds has a reputation for stonewalling when it comes to releasing information, especially spending and budget details.

Nick Grube/Civil Beat

“My concern is to ensure more local communities and local fishers have a full voice in that process and that they are not influenced by outside interests” including Wespac, she said.

She wants to see the detailed accounting of Wespac’s spending on the aha moku to make sure the money is not being used to improperly influence state policy.

Federal law prohibits Wespac as well as other federal agencies from spending taxpayer money on lobbying and political influence. A 2009 General Accounting Office review of Wespac was conducted because of concerns that Wespac was lobbying on other issues, including opposing the creation and expansion of marine preserves and monuments.

The report didn’t find improper lobbying but made it clear that Wespac could state its position on issues only when asked or invited to participate, not initiate action on its own.

“So why is Wespac facilitating the planning process” for community discussions of state policy, Case says. “We don’t know the answer.”

Questions And Conflicts

Case’s concerns over lack of transparency and accountability mirror questions being raised by U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and U.S. Reps. Ed Case of Hawaii and Gregorio Sablan of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. (Ed Case is Suzanne Case’s brother.)

The members of Congress are particularly interested in the Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund, a separate account that is controlled by Simonds and the council. For the past decade, the fund has paid for numerous projects in Hawaii, the CNMI, Guam and American Samoa but with little oversight or accountability of what the money is being spent on.

It’s unclear whether money from the fund has been used by Wespac for aha moku activities.

Simonds was unavailable to answer questions for this series despite numerous requests over the past few weeks.

Patricia Tummons, Environment Hawaii founder, has followed Wespac for 25 years.

But her reluctance to release financial information about Wespac and its operations goes back decades.

Environment Hawaii founder Patricia Tummons has been writing about Wespac for 25 years. The nonprofit subscriber-only newsletter has provided the most diligent coverage of Wespac of any news organization, including occasional investigative reports that chronicle exhausting public records battles with Simonds over the budget and spending.

“There’s a procedural problem with obtaining information — and that’s huge — and basically it goes back to Kitty Simonds,” Tummons says.

Tummons is convinced Simonds uses federal money — including the Sustainable Fisheries Fund — to provide contracts for her supporters on the council and political allies, a concern she’s addressed in the publication. In return, Simonds remains in a highly paid job — nearly $190,000 a year — a position she’s held “longer than I’ve been doing environmental writing,” Tummons noted.

While Simonds does work with local officials in the territories to develop priorities, Tummons says, “her friends get the contracts.”

One example of that, she said, is a pier in Guam where then-council chair Manny Duenas was president of the Guam Fishermen’s Cooperative Association. Money from the Sustainable Fisheries Fund was used to build the pier.

“Manny wanted it, Manny got it,” Tummons said, adding that “no one uses it.”

Duenas’ son, Michael, the general manager of the Guam Fishermen’s Cooperative Association, now has a seat on the council. He is also a member of the council’s executive and budget committee that plays a role in deciding which projects will move forward.

Tummons was so frustrated with Simonds that in 2013 she wrote an editorial calling for her to go — “Goodbye, Kitty: It’s Time for Wespac Director to Step Down.

“That Simonds has managed to appropriate so much power reveals a flaw in the very structure of the regional fishery management councils and the law setting them up,” she wrote.

Still Waiting For Budget Info

A search of Environment Hawaii’s archives shows that stonewalling on financial information is a pattern that continues to repeat itself. The news outlet has had to wait months and even years for information on everything from Wespac’s operating budget to travel records to meeting expenses.

In May 2009, it reported on an 18-month effort to obtain information on Wespac’s role in the initial puwalu. The news outlet eventually was able to report that Wespac spent more than $300,000 on five puwalu, including a paid coordinator, travel expenses for dozens of people to attend and other costs.

Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council sign on door

Based in Honolulu, Wespac has 13 voting members who manage more than 1.5 million square miles of ocean.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Earlier that year, three environmental groups had been forced to sue Wespac, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Commerce Department to get information on federal budgets, contracts and grants. The lawsuit came after the groups — the LOST Fish Coalition, Conservation Council for Hawaii and KAHEA — had been waiting on a response to an information request filed two years earlier.

That was also the same year Simonds led the effort to remove much of the council’s information from its website including meeting minutes and financial records. At her urging the council voted to make information that had been on the website available only through FOIA. The vote was done without public input. Only the state representative on the council objected.

Wespac Erects More Hurdles in Path of Public Seeking Council Information,” Environment Hawaii’s headline read.

Civil Beat has been seeking records on the Sustainable Fisheries Fund since May 2017. Since then, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees Wespac’s funding and federal grant process, has made available numerous records on Wespac and its budget but little information that shows spending detail from the fund. It wasn’t until September 2018 that NOAA shared a limited number of contract files involving the fund.

Michael Tosatto, the NOAA administrator who deals most closely with Simonds and Wespac, said it is NOAA’s responsibility to release the information but that the agency has run into delays getting records from Wespac. At least twice over the past two years, NOAA has acknowledged delays and asked Civil Beat if it even still wants the records.

Earlier this year, in April, NOAA and Wespac finally released pages from a ledger that show what checks Wespac has issued. Civil Beat asked for an electronic version of the ledger covering the period from 2012 through 2017. NOAA shared 50 pages from January 2012 through September 2013, but released it as a photocopied PDF in which important information — like the column that notes the purpose of the check —  is obscured.

Civil Beat is still waiting for a readable version as well as the remainder of the ledger, now requested through the current year, along with more contract files from 2012 through the present.

‘Longstanding Pattern Of Deflection And Obfuscation’

On May 1, Sablan, the congressman from CNMI, and Ed Case of Hawaii, sent Simonds a list of detailed questions about Wespac’s management practices and finances, setting a May 16 deadline for a response. They wanted to know about the health of the fisheries and sustainability, about the quota-sharing arrangements, about the council’s makeup representing only fishing interests, about Wespac’s political position on marine monuments and endangered species, about international fisheries laws and enforcement, and about Wespac’s lobbying practices, among other things.

Simonds finally sent a 44-page response on Monday, the day Civil Beat reported the congressmen were unhappy that she had not replied.

Long rows of fresh fish on ice line the floors of the Honolulu Fish Auction Wednesday, December 5, 2018. Hundreds of fish, up to 100,000 in a day, pass through the auction doors six days a week. (Civil Beat photo Ronen Zilberman)

Long rows of fresh fish on ice line the floors of the Honolulu Fish Auction where the longline fleet sells its catch.

Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat

Case wanted to know why Wespac was playing a role in state fisheries management and asked for examples of Wespac’s involvement in state issues. He also asked for budget and financial details on those efforts.

Simonds insisted that federal law requires that state fisheries be jointly managed by the state and the feds, including the nearshore bottomfish areas. She briefly named a number of federal scientific research projects on coral and fish stocks but provided no details.

She didn’t mention Wespac’s financing of the aha moku meetings. And she provided no budget or financial details on anything.

Simonds also provided little information about the Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund. She sidestepped questions about audits required by Congress, and said the council “takes no position” on whether some contracts issued by Wespac might pose conflicts of interest.

When asked to provide copies of all contracts entered into by the fund for the past 10 years along with documentation of money paid out of the fund, Simonds replied: “Request acknowledged.”

Sablan and Case said Tuesday that Simonds’ responses fall far short of what they expected and do little to shed light on Wespac’s operations, including how it administers and oversees the Sustainable Fisheries Fund.

U.S. Rep. Gregorio Sablan of the Northern Marianas asks questions at a Capitol Hill hearing

U.S. Rep. Gregorio Sablan of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands is continuing to push Wespac to be accountable for its management practices and its finances.

Courtesy of Rep. Gregorio Sablan

“The answers that we received Monday from Kitty Simonds continue a longstanding pattern of deflection and obfuscation in response to legitimate Congressional oversight inquiry as to how public policy is carried out and how monies are being spent,” Sablan said in a statement. “The responses lead to more questions than answers; NOAA and WESPAC officials are federal employees and need to be accountable for their stewardship of dollars and our ocean resources.”

Case was even more blunt in his assessment of Simonds’ response. He called the answers “a carefully crafted circling of the wagons in defense of the longstanding status quo as opposed to any appreciation or real consideration of various concerns expressed over many years now.”

He pointed out that Wespac’s view that it is broadly authorized to involve itself in state fishery management issues was never intended under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which created Wespac and seven other regional fishery councils in 1976.

The council is clearly involved in lobbying that is prohibited by federal law despite Simonds’ efforts to define Wespac’s activities as simply providing information, he said. The lack of transparency around funding and expenditures is compounding the problem, he added.

“Wespac continues to evade any real transparency as to its operations and finances, as evidenced again by its refusal to commit to providing the Committee with copies of recent Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund contracts and payments,” he said.

Case said he’s also now questioning not only Wespac’s management, “but up the chain to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Commerce.”

U.S. Rep. Ed Case thinks it is time to look at NOAA’s oversight of Wespac as well as the fishery council itself.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

“I have generally had no real concerns with NMFS and NOAA, but something is awry here if Wespac is essentially being allowed to operate independent of any administrative oversight,” he said.

Next steps, he said, include consulting with Sablan but then meeting with officials at NOAA and letting them know how serious the congressmen are about getting the information they are seeking. It’s also time for a larger review of federal fisheries policy and the MSA “and whether another direction focused on ocean conservation is better suited to save our oceans.”

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