On The Hook

Special Report

On The Hook

The Western Pacific Fishery Management Council is the federal body that oversees fishing in more than 1.5 million square miles of the vast Western Pacific Ocean. The commercial fleet it regulates lands much of the ahi tuna and swordfish served in Hawaii, among other fish species.

To put it mildly, Wespac has a lot to do with the availability of fresh, locally caught poke in the islands. The council receives millions in federal dollars to operate and to hand out in the form of grants that pay for projects in Hawaii as well as Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa.

For the past 38 years it has been run by Kitty Simonds, an outspoken and unapologetic champion of the commercial fishermen.

Environmental groups, Native Hawaiians, state officials and others have complained for decades that Simonds and the council members have short-changed conservation concerns in favor of exploiting the resource to benefit fishermen, and that they are inappropriately using taxpayer money for political lobbying and efforts to manipulate public policy.

Two years ago, Civil Beat investigated a secretive fisheries fund controlled by Simonds and Wespac. Our investigation caught the attention of congressmen involved in natural resource management and in part prompted a federal audit of Wespac, a review that is still going on.

Since then Civil Beat has been taking a much deeper look at Wespac itself, with an eye toward how Wespac is spending its federal budget. We wanted to see if Simonds and the council are essentially using taxpayer dollars to try to influence public policy rather than manage fish stocks in a way to make sure they continue to flourish.

We found that Simonds and Wespac have not been hesitant to use their political power and their federal budget to benefit the commercial fishing industry to the detriment of other interests. The council’s activism has ranged from working to establish community-based resource advocacy groups that state officials say clearly oversteps and treads on the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ turf to highly visible opposition to the national marine monuments like Papahanaumokuakea. They’ve paid to stack meetings with their allies and organize rallies that protest federal restrictions.

More recently, Simonds tried to convince President Trump to roll back protections for fish and habitat that had been put in place by Presidents Bush and Obama. And now the council is gearing up to oppose any changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the nation’s primary fisheries management law which is up for congressional review.

Federal investigators have so far found the council’s activism stops short of violating prohibitions on lobbying by government officials but auditors have warned Simonds and her staff that they should only be responding to legislative matters when asked and only with factual and technical information. Citing Wespac’s actions, two congressmen have introduced changes to the MSA that would specifically prohibit the kinds of political action Wespac has engaged in over the past decades.

Using the federal Freedom of Information Act, we obtained thousands of pages of Wespac documents, correspondence, emails and other records including the past 10 years of the agency’s financial ledger that details the expenditures it’s made.

What emerges is a picture of an agency and its leader who have worked to make sure the commercial fishing industry can keep operating at the highest level possible, even as stocks struggle and bycatch remains a problem that threatens some species with extinction.

Proposed Updates To Federal Fishing Law Target Wespac Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2021

Proposed Updates To Federal Fishing Law Target Wespac

The Western Pacific Fishery Management Council’s lack of transparency and unabashed politicking has prompted an effort to curtail questionable behavior through legislation.

Alaska: Where Conservation Plays A Key Role In One Of The World’s Biggest Fisheries Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2021

Alaska: Where Conservation Plays A Key Role In One Of The World’s Biggest Fisheries

Alaskans have learned the hard way how to keep fish stocks healthy in a state where fishermen and environmentalists work together to protect the resource.

Pro-Fishing Industry Council Members Often Stay In Power For Years

Pro-Fishing Industry Council Members Often Stay In Power For Years

The same industry backers are reappointed to Wespac for term after term while people who lean toward conservation are soon replaced.

‘A Force Of Nature’: Wespac’s Kitty Simonds Has Had A Productive Reign Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

‘A Force Of Nature’: Wespac’s Kitty Simonds Has Had A Productive Reign

The longtime leader of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council has always done things her own way, for better or for worse.

Wespac’s Fight Against Marine Monuments Is All About Protecting The Fishing Industry Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2018

Wespac’s Fight Against Marine Monuments Is All About Protecting The Fishing Industry

The council’s leaders have done everything they can to stop presidents from creating monuments in the Pacific. Members of Congress have put forward a way to curb the lobbying.

Wespac’s Aggressive Effort To Muscle In On State Control Of Fisheries ahamoku.org/2019

Wespac’s Aggressive Effort To Muscle In On State Control Of Fisheries

From paying people to attend meetings to pushing legislation and even publishing a book, the federal fisheries panel spent years trying to influence state policy.

How Politics And Lobbying Have Shaped Federal Fisheries Policies In The Pacific

How Politics And Lobbying Have Shaped Federal Fisheries Policies In The Pacific

A Civil Beat investigation into the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council shows its longtime director and loyal council members have for decades used questionable strategies to help commercial fishermen.

Related Stories

How The Magnuson-Stevens Act Shaped Hawaii’s Fishing Industry Wespac

How The Magnuson-Stevens Act Shaped Hawaii’s Fishing Industry

Pushing foreign fleets farther offshore was just the beginning. The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council oversaw a gold rush in Hawaii.

Ongoing Coverage

‘Not Just Wespac’: Federal Oversight Of Fisheries Is Under Scrutiny By Congress Screenshot/2021

‘Not Just Wespac’: Federal Oversight Of Fisheries Is Under Scrutiny By Congress

U.S. Rep. Ed Case used the first hearing on proposed reforms of the Magnuson-Stevens Act to ask where NOAA’s oversight has been in the alleged mismanagement of an obscure fisheries fund.

Congressmen Seek Reforms After ‘Damning’ Audit Of Pacific Fisheries Fund Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat

Congressmen Seek Reforms After ‘Damning’ Audit Of Pacific Fisheries Fund

A bill being heard Tuesday to update the Magnuson-Stevens Act would take away Wespac’s control of the money and add new layers of oversight.

State Hawaiian Advisory Group Separates From Federal Fishery Council ahamoku.org/2019

State Hawaiian Advisory Group Separates From Federal Fishery Council

The Aha Moku Advisory Committee says Wespac does not influence its recommendations to the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Federal Audit Finds Questionable Spending And Lax Oversight By Wespac Of Secretive Fisheries Fund Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Federal Audit Finds Questionable Spending And Lax Oversight By Wespac Of Secretive Fisheries Fund

Federal investigators questioned one out of every $6 the regional fishery council spent over the past decade and documented inappropriate procurement practices.

Community Voices

Hawaii Has Benefited From Kitty Simond’s Leadership Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Hawaii Has Benefited From Kitty Simond’s Leadership

Kitty Simonds is an effective advocate for the commercial fishing fleet.

PROJECT TEAM

Reporter: Nathan Eagle
Editor: Patti Epler
Photography: Cory Lum, Nathan Eagle
Art and Graphics: April Estrellon
Graphs and Multimedia: April Estrellon, Ku‘u Kauanoe
Site Design and Development: Mantle
Database Support: Investigative Reporters & Editors
Additional Support for this Project: Fund for Investigative Journalism

Read ‘Reeling It In’, Civil Beat’s 2019 investigation on Wespac, that revealed conflicts of interest, political favoritism and lax oversight when it came to using federal dollars to further commercial fishing interests through the use of a secretive fisheries fund.