The federal agency that oversees how the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council spends millions of taxpayer dollars told a congressional committee Tuesday that findings in a recent audit of mismanagement and questionable spending by the council were “deeply concerning.”

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“You expect an audit to uncover some deficiencies but the extent and the percentage of grants that were deemed questionable for poor record-keeping or other issues identified was certainly out of line,” National Marine Fisheries Service Assistant Administrator Janet Coit said.

Her remarks came in response to questions from U.S. Rep. Ed Case during the House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife’s first hearing on legislation to update the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

He and Congressman Jared Huffman, who chairs the WOW subcommittee, have introduced a bill that would, among other broad reforms of the 45-year-old law, tighten controls over how Wespac can use money from the Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund. 

NMFS Assistant Administrator Janet Coit told a congressional committee Tuesday that the findings of a recent audit of the Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund were “deeply concerning.” Screenshot/2021

In 2019, Case and three other members of Congress requested a comprehensive review of the fund by the Commerce Department’s Office of the Inspector General, following a Civil Beat investigation that revealed potential conflicts of interest, lax oversight and political favoritism. The subsequent audit, released Wednesday after an 18-month review, identified $1.24 million in questionable costs.

Case said that amounts to 40% of all costs examined by the auditors, since certain documents prior to 2015 were unavailable due to record-retention policies. He interprets that to mean Wespac is either failing to properly administer the funds, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is failing to provide proper oversight of Wespac, or perhaps both. 

“This is not just about Wespac but this is about NOAA’s oversight,” Case told Coit, of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service. “This is (an) opportunity to tighten up your oversight if you feel there is something lacking in your oversight authorization.” 

Coit said NOAA’s grants division is responsible for overseeing how Wespac spends its grants, which is how it receives the money for the Sustainable Fisheries Fund, and that she would need to ask administrators at the division if their authority is sufficient.

Coit said she met Monday with Jeff Thomas, who is head of NOAA’s Acquisitions and Grants Office and responsible for implementing the audit’s recommendations. She said they talked about the $1.2 million in questionable costs, and discussed council trainings, additional oversight and ideas for pre-approvals for spending money from the fund. 

U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, chair of the Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife, held the first hearing on legislation he and U.S. Rep. Ed Case introduced in August to update the MSA. Screenshot/2021

“NOAA is committed to continuous improvement and the audit report uncovered deficiencies that are deeply concerning to me,” she said. “NOAA will follow through with the recommendations.”

The Case-Huffman bill to update the MSA would remove Wespac’s authority to control the Sustainable Fisheries Fund, which received $7.4 million from 2010 to 2019. It gives that power instead to the commerce secretary, who would be advised by a new four-person panel composed of one member each appointed by the governors of Hawaii and the three Pacific territories.

William Aila, who had a designated seat on Wespac when he chaired the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, told the congressional committee that he supported the proposed changes to the MSA when it came to improving oversight of the fund.

“This is critical to reforming Wespac and bringing accountability on how funds are accounted for,” he said.

William Aila recalled his experience over the past 33 years with Wespac, including his time on the council as chair of the Hawaii DLNR. Screenshot/2021

The Water, Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee did not hear directly from Wespac during its hearing.

But Council Executive Director Kitty Simonds, Chair Archie Soliai and the four vice chairs submitted comments on the Case-Huffman bill last month, in which they say changes to the council’s control of the fund “may reduce transparency and limit input from the fishing community.”

Marc Gorelnik, chair of the Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, spoke on behalf of all eight regional councils as head of their Council Coordination Committee during the congressional hearing. He did not directly comment on the Sustainable Fisheries Fund but said the councils want better science and to maintain their regional flexibility while avoiding unfunded mandates and requirements that would reduce their role in fisheries management.

Another key component of the Case-Huffman bill, which Case says is driven in large part by Wespac’s activities, is stronger lobbying restrictions. 

Current rules prohibit Wespac from advocating for or against pending legislation at the state and federal levels. The council can provide technical and factual information if its input is requested by Congress, but there has been concern for years about Wespac exceeding that limit. 

The councils have more wiggle room when it comes to lobbying the executive branch, and Wespac has routinely outright opposed marine monuments and other environmental protections that would restrict commercial fishing grounds. 

U.S. Rep. Don Young of Alaska suggested there might be a possibility for a bipartisan bill to update the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Screenshot/2021

The Case-Huffman bill would add a new section to cover the executive branch — specifically, the “issuance, advancement, modification or overturning of an executive order, proclamation, or Presidential directive.” That would include monuments.

During the hearing Tuesday, Aila agreed with Case’s assessment that Wespac has been improperly lobbying and exerting political influence on state and federal legislative and executive branches for decades. Wespac has denied this and prior audits have been inconclusive. 

Case said it’s one thing for Wespac to have done this all these years, but another for NOAA to not have provided better oversight.

“NOAA has been missing in action, so to speak, for quite a few years,” Aila said.

U.S. Rep. Ed Case asks a question during the Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife’s first hearing on legislation to update the MSA. Screenshot/2021

The MSA has historically been a bipartisan issue. It passed in 1976 with support from Republicans and Democrats and each of its updates did as well, including its last reauthorization in 2006. 

While observers have said it seems unlikely this can happen this time around in today’s fractured political climate, Huffman, a Democrat, left the door open to such a possibility. He thanked U.S. Rep. Don Young, the committee’s ranking Republican member from Alaska, for productive conversations.

“The MSA is largely working,” Huffman said. “It doesn’t need to be reinvented, but it does need to be updated,” noting the need to make climate change a top consideration in fisheries management.

Young, who helped draft the original MSA and has his own version of a bill to update it, told Huffman during the hearing that there are areas where they both agree, such as increased support for better science and more data. 

“Hopefully we can get together and write a bill,” he said. “If we don’t write a bill, then you’ve got to give me a little bit or it’s not going to go anywhere.”

Watch the committee hearing in its entirety below. 

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