A federal fisheries oversight council has stymied inquiries by congressmen, journalists and others over the past few years
Honolulu, HAWAII — In the past 10 years, millions of dollars have flowed through an obscure federal fund aimed at supporting commercial tuna fishermen in Hawaii and three U.S. Pacific island territories.
But limited oversight, a process of awarding contracts mostly behind closed doors and a reluctance to produce public records about the fund have stymied efforts to find out how the money is being spent, who is receiving it and whether it’s being used in accordance with federal law, a Civil Beat investigation shows.
Moreover, records obtained by Civil Beat under the Freedom of Information Act over the past two years show that thousands of dollars have been awarded to members of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council. Projects paid for by the fund have directly benefited council members’ own business interests. And money has also gone to contractors who support council positions on issues like increasing catch limits for the lucrative tuna fishery or opposing expansion of marine national monuments.
The Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund is rarely discussed openly at full meetings of the 16-member council. Decisions about how the money will be spent are made in meetings of the council’s five-member executive and budget committee that consists of the council chair and vice chairs representing Hawaii and each territory — American Samoa, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
For several years, millions of dollars flowed into the fund from penalties against foreign vessels fishing illegally in U.S. waters around remote Pacific islands. In more recent years, the money has come largely from payments made by Hawaii longliners to buy the territories’ unused tuna quotas.
Wespac’s longtime executive director, Kitty Simonds, presides over the grant application process used to tap the fund. She steers the project proposals that have been requested by local officials in the territories and Hawaii. She’s listed as the principal contact for awards and signs many of the checks when money leaves the fund, records show.
Simonds has been unavailable for an interview for the past three weeks.
The secrecy surrounding the Sustainable Fisheries Fund is frustrating some members of Congress, including U.S Sen. Brian Schatz, who put language in last year’s appropriations bill to require a full accounting of the fund.
“We just couldn’t lay eyes on what the money was spent on,” Schatz told Civil Beat. “We came to the conclusion we needed a robust accounting.”
But the response he received in August was anything but the detailed accounting he had expected. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees Wespac, provided a “Report to Congress” that amounted to six pages and only included year-by-year totals of how much money was spent along with brief descriptions of the projects.
Now, U.S. Reps. Ed Case of Hawaii and Gregorio Sablan of the Northern Marianas are demanding answers, too. Following a congressional hearing May 1 at which Simonds brushed off questions from Sablan, the two congressmen sent pages of detailed questions to her about the fund as well as other Wespac policies and practices.
“Wespac has been shrouded in secrecy for a long time,” Case told Civil Beat in a recent interview. “I have been very concerned, going back decades now, that essentially Wespac’s primary focus is not on environmental protection, not on sustainability, but is on the maximum exploitation of the resource.”
Simonds has yet to provide a response to the congressmen’s questions. Her answers were due May 16 but have not yet been submitted, according to congressional staff.
“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.”
The congressmen aren’t the only ones who have been thwarted by Wespac.
Over the years, the council has been the subject of news stories about its refusal to release records to journalists and it’s fought lawsuits filed by environmental groups seeking simple budget information. Even the state of Hawaii, which has a voting seat on the council, can’t get answers to questions about what money and staffing Wespac is providing in meetings over fishing in state waters.
Civil Beat first submitted public records requests to NOAA for this story in May 2017. NOAA, which handles the requests for Wespac, was able to provide some documents within a few months, mainly hundreds of pages of correspondence between Wespac and federal officials about the council’s position on issues such as the expansion of marine monuments, for instance, or the problems faced by the commercial fishing industry.
NOAA has also released general financial information such as the total dollars in the fund on any given year and awards to recipients — information similar to that given to Congress. It’s also provided Civil Beat with a list of contracts for fiscal years 2012 through 2017.
But much of the detailed information on the Sustainable Fisheries Fund that would show how money has been disbursed beyond the initial contract recipient and what its benefit has been for fishery management and conservation has not been made available.
Pages from the general ledger, for instance, were not released until April — 23 months after Civil Beat’s initial request. Even then, the record contained only the first 50 pages of an estimated 500 pages that show expenditures from the fund over the past five years. Key information is unreadable and requests to get a better copy have not been addressed.
NMFS’ Pacific Islands Regional Office Administrator Michael Tosatto oversees the grant process for the federal government. An attorney, he has a long history with Wespac — first as a non-voting council member in 1997 when he was the Coast Guard’s chief of law enforcement. In 2004 he became PIRO’s deputy administrator and has been working closely with Wespac ever since. He fills the federal government’s seat on the council.
Tosatto said his agency maintains some records about Wespac and the Sustainable Fisheries Fund. But most of the financial information is in Wespac’s possession and NOAA has to wait for Wespac to pass it along before he can share it, he said.
He said delays in responding to Civil Beat’s request are because Wespac has been slow to provide records, partly because the council was seeking legal advice from NOAA about whether the information had to be released.
Tosatto contends that NOAA’s Report to Congress — the six pages provided to Schatz in August under the federally mandated accounting of the fund — was exactly what the agency was asked to provide.
“I believe our response to Sen. Schatz was 100% responsive to his request,” Tosatto said. “It was the ins and outs of the fund. He was provided all the detail that was required by law.”
Nearly a year later, Schatz still isn’t happy with the response. And he feels no closer to an adequate understanding of the flow of money in and out of the fund.
“I haven’t even in my view laid eyes on something that looks like an explanatory budget document,” he says. “It is still an opaque budget process and that’s not acceptable.”
But he told Civil Beat that he is hopeful continued discussions with NOAA will shed more light on the workings of the fund.
“We are in a dialogue with NOAA and NMFS and we don’t think this has to be adversarial with the Department of Commerce,” he said. “But it is my job to figure out how this money is being spent and we don’t have the data that we need.”
The Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund has been in existence since the council was created in 1976 with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Wespac is one of eight regional fishery management councils, and the only one with a separate fund that pays for initiatives that range from major construction projects to scientific studies to contract staff.
The council advises NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service on ocean policies in a region spanning 1.5 million square miles. The council is required under the Magnuson-Stevens Act and other federal laws to ensure fish stocks remain sustainable while protecting endangered species and natural resources.
The fund was initially established to accept payments from foreign fishing vessels seeking to fish in U.S. waters. But since the whole point of the 1976 act was to keep foreign vessels out of the 200-mile U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, no such deals were ever made and the fund sat empty.
Then, in 2007, the MSA was amended to allow it to receive fines and penalties assessed against vessels fishing illegally in the Pacific Remote Island Areas — Baker, Howland and Jarvis islands, Johnson Atoll, Kingman Reef, Palmyra Atoll and Wake Island. (Fines and penalties for illegal fishing in Guam, CNMI and American Samoa waters go straight to those territories, not into the fund.)
The law also allows the fund to accept money from quota-sharing agreements between the Hawaii Longline Association — which represents most of the 144-vessel fleet based in Honolulu — and Guam, American Samoa and the CNMI.
Those quota agreements now bring in $250,000 per 1,000 tons of additional bigeye quota. They began in 2013 at $150,000 apiece and have steadily increased.
The fleet lands about $100 million worth of the fresh bigeye each year that’s found in poke bowls, sashimi plates and restaurants around Hawaii and flown to markets on the U.S. mainland. It’s one of two types of tuna known as ahi in Hawaii; the other is yellowfin.
The longliners’ limit this year is 3,554 tons, as determined by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, so they can effectively double their annual limit through these agreements.
Eric Kingma, a former Wespac official who’s now the executive director of the Hawaii Longline Association, said the association does not have any comment on how the fund is used. He said those spending decisions only involve NOAA, the council and participating territories.
HOW THE MONEY FLOWS
Shortly after the amended law was signed by President George W. Bush, a Spanish-flagged purse seiner called the Albacora Uno was charged with illegally fishing off Howland, Baker and Jarvis islands. The boat and its catch were seized and the owners ultimately paid penalties of $5 million, which were deposited into the Sustainable Fisheries Fund in 2010 and doled out to Wespac over the next few years as grants.
Wespac had already revealed a draft proposal with far-reaching ideas for how the money would be put to use. The draft proposal pitched $5.5 million worth of projects ranging from $1,000 to produce videos to $1 million to pay for fisheries training programs and workshops, according to a story in Environment Hawaii, a nonprofit news outlet that has been covering Wespac and its meetings for the past 25 years.
Records released by NOAA show there have been 10 awards to Wespac from the fund, totaling $6.89 million. The single largest was $2.34 million in 2014 and the lowest was $175,000 in 2015. In October, the most recent grant was $511,600 thanks to two territory agreements.
The process of spending money from the fund begins with what’s called a marine conservation plan— a three-year blueprint that each territory develops to guide fisheries management with an eye toward ensuring a sustainable fishery.
Federal law mandates that the MCPs “must prioritize planned marine conservation projects” although Congress has approved more recent updates to the Magnuson-Stevens Act that allows fishery councils like Wespac to direct resources toward boosting the catch as much as preserving it.
Each governor submits their MCP to Wespac, which reviews and approves it before sending it on to NOAA for a final OK. Tosatto refers to the MCPs as a “project list” but some MCPs are more detailed than others. Guam, for instance, submitted a relatively precise plan for a fishing platform. American Samoa’s is more general, broadly citing a need for docks or ice machines, among other things.
Specific projects are proposed in grant applications — called narratives — developed by Simonds and her staff in conjunction with the territories.
NOAA reviews the narratives and makes sure they line up with the MCP for that area before signing off on grants from the Sustainable Fisheries Fund, Tosatto said, adding that the agency looks closely at whether the project is executable, if the cost breakdown is realistic and if it’s meeting the governor’s goals.
But once the money is handed over to Wespac, NOAA’s oversight fades. Technical reports are submitted to NOAA and agency staff sometimes travels to the territories and looks in on the progress of some projects, Tosatto said.
But NOAA does not follow up on the contracting process or review the expenditures handled by Simonds and her staff. It’s up to Wespac to keep tabs on the project and the contractors, which would be standard practice for grants like this around the country, he said.
American Samoa and the CNMI have been the two territories selling their quota shares to the Hawaii longliners for the past few years. Among other things, the money is slated to extend a marina in Pago Pago Harbor so U.S. longliners have a dedicated space to dock, and go to a fisheries training and demonstration program in the CNMI to help increase catch.
More on this report coming up later this week with Part 2: How Westpac drives the process and conflicts of interest — including comments to Civil Beat from StarKist executive, Archie Soliai.