The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council will ultimately have to pay back $837,000 of more than $1.2 million in questionable and opaque spending flagged by federal auditors last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s grants division has ruled.

The influential council, known as Wespac, had appealed the findings of the Office of the Inspector General’s 2021 audit, contending that all of the spending was in fact above board. Wespac argued that it shouldn’t have to pay back those federal dollars, which stem from a fund that’s supposed to support sustainable fisheries in the Western Pacific.

Kitty Simonds, Executive Director Wespac. Western Pacific Fishery Management Council.
Kitty Simonds, Wespac’s executive director, received NOAA’s final determination on the council’s questionable spending on Thursday. Wespac had appealed the findings of a 2021 federal audit. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Nonetheless, in its “final determination” letter Thursday, NOAA’s Grants Management Division informed Wespac’s executive director, Kitty Simonds, that it would uphold most of the OIG findings, largely because the council failed to provide “associated invoices, purchase orders, procurement agreements, receipts and cashed checks” for the flagged expenses.

“This is a final agency decision. There is no further administrative appeal,” Jeffery Thomas, director of NOAA’s Acquisitions and Grants Office, said in the letter.

If Wespac fails to pay back any of the $837,000 that it owes, federal officials could withhold payments that go toward current Wespac funds, he added. The council has 30 days to pay the the money back or come up with an installment plan.

“While an apportionment of the specific costs originally questioned in the audit have been reconsidered by NOAA, the associated review reveals WPRFMC’s pattern of failure to comply” with federal standards and rules governing grant awards, Thomas said in the letter.

The 2021 audit covered Wespac’s $7.4 million in total spending from 2010 to 2020 through the Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund. One out of every $6 spent over a decade by the council was questioned by investigators.

The fund, created under the 1996 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, was initially seeded by millions of dollars in fines against foreign vessels fishing illegally in U.S. waters around remote Pacific islands. But in recent years, the primary source of funding has come from Hawaii’s longline fishermen through deals that let them fish for several thousand tons of additional tuna beyond their quota limits.

A Wespac representative said Thursday that Simonds had just received the NOAA letter and that she would review it with the council’s executive committee before issuing any comment on its findings. The council guides fishing policies for over 1.5 million square miles of ocean in U.S.-controlled waters.

NOAA’s final determination Thursday follows a 2019 Civil Beat investigation into Wespac’s spending, as well as calls from federal lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Ed Case, for further scrutiny of that spending and NOAA’s oversight of the Sustainable Fisheries Fund.

Read NOAA’s letter to Wespac on its final determination here:

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