Secretive funds and wasteful projects. Conflicts of interest and political favoritism. Limited oversight and stonewalling administrators.

Civil Beat’s recent three-part series “Reeling It In,” which helps lift the heavy lid on the murky operations of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, raises as many questions as it answers about a vital government agency that has swayed from its core mission.

Among other alarming discoveries the series reveals that Wespac, whose charge is to prevent overfishing and protect fish stocks up to 200 miles offshore Hawaii, U.S. territories and remote islands and atolls in the Pacific, controls millions of dollars that flow through a special fund with little oversight on how the money is being spent and by who.

Wespac’s reluctance to release information makes it difficult to track the money, but a significant amount has gone to businesses that are owned or managed by current council members as well as contractors who are politically aligned with Wespac’s goals to promote commercial fishing interests.

Civil Beat’s reporting should serve as a springboard for greater scrutiny of Wespac and its longtime executive director, Kitty Simonds, who appears to run the organization as her personal fiefdom.

Hawaii’s longline fleet, shown here in October 2016, is the primary benefactor of Wespac’s fisheries management.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Criticism and questions about Wespac are not new. Hawaii Island-based newsletter Environment Hawaii has reported on allegations of mismanagement, misuse of power and arrogance since 1994.

More recently, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and U.S. Rep. Ed Case, Democrats of Hawaii, along with U.S. Rep. Gregorio Sablan of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands have been asking tough questions about Simonds and Wespac.

But Wespac has continued a decades-long practice of stonewalling and obfuscating, refusing to release the detailed financial accounting information sought by members of Congress as well as journalists.

The inquiries by investigative reporters into this agency’s operations will continue, but it’s clearly time for a deeper federal look into Wespac, its staff, its finances and its management practices.

Any probe should also look at whether the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is effective in its oversight of the council. NOAA, through its National Marine Fisheries Service, provides some  scientific studies used by Wespac, awards federal grants to the council to further fisheries management and is responsible in part for its financial accountability.

But Wespac under Simonds’ 37-year tenure has essentially operated independently and without much oversight, stalling on providing information even to NOAA.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan and independent watchdog of the U.S. Congress, conducted a limited review of Wespac 10 years ago, looking at whether the council was improperly lobbying Congress and the administration on various issues such as national marine monuments.

But Wespac may well be ripe for a formal investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, given its reluctance to be forthcoming about its financial dealings including conflicts of interest by council members who are benefitting from grants and contracts being awarded by the council.

Wespac was created in 1976 along with seven other regional fishery management councils in the country by Sens. Ted Stevens of Alaska and Warren Magnuson of Washington state. The Magnuson-Stevens Act has been amended several times by Congress.

The objectives, as spelled out in the act, are to prevent overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks, grow the economic benefits of marine use over the long term, use sound science and data to inform decision making, and conserve fish habitats and ensure harvesting food from the sea remains a sustainable enterprise.

Wespac’s 13 voting members currently include eight representing commercial and sports fishing interests. The other five come from state, federal and territorial governments. In recent years critics have been pushing to formally add conservation or environmental interests to the council.

Hawaii’s seat is currently held by Dean Sensui of Hawaii Goes Fishing, who received tens of thousands of dollars in grants from Wespac not long before he was named to the council. His term expires this year and Gov. David Ige will have the opportunity to nominate to the secretary of the U.S. Commerce Department a member who provides greater balance.

As Wespac’s own website states, “Council members must balance competing interests while trying to make decisions for the overall benefit of the nation.”

Fishery management is essential and must be held to the highest standard with full transparency.

But Civil Beat’s series makes clear that too much of Wespac’s work may be at cross purposes with its mission and possibly unethical. The public needs to have its confidence restored that its oceans are managed properly and that its tax dollars are spent wisely.

“There’s a culture inside the management of Wespac that they can do whatever they want and it’s nobody’s business,” Case said. “That’s not cool with me.”

Nope. Not cool at all.

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