Complaints against fishery agency warrant investigation
Environmental and Hawaiian cultural groups are calling for an investigation of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council.
ALLEGATIONS that the agency in charge of managing fisheries in Hawaii has misused government funds and participated in illegal lobbying appear to have sufficient grounds for investigation.
Hawaii's congressional delegation should insist that federal authorities look into the charges to assure taxpayers that the agency has not engaged in prohibited activity and is deserving of public trust.
Three environmental groups, a Hawaiian cultural organization and a national science and policy institute have lodged complaints with the U.S. Commerce Department's inspector general. They are asking for a congressional probe and the resignation of Kitty Simonds, who has been the agency's executive director for more than 20 years.
They contend the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council organized and used federal money to push three fishing-related bills during the last state legislative session. If true, the activities would be considered illegal.
In its original form, one of the bills, HB 1848, would have effectively blocked the state Department of Land and Natural Resources from carrying out its responsibilities to protect Hawaii's ocean resources. The measure was seen as a way to moderate the state's conservation efforts that, at times, were at odds with the aims of fishing and marine extraction industries who view the fishery council's policies as less restrictive. After community protest, the bill was heavily amended.
The complaining groups contend they have documented evidence that the fishery council improperly paid for and organized meetings where lobbying efforts were mobilized. Some of the groups' members say they witnessed council employees directing lobbying and reporting on payments for organizing advocacy.
The council, with a knotty mission of balancing extraction and sustaining of fisheries, is no stranger to conflict. Fishing and environmental groups often have expressed concern that the council's decisions were inclined to please industry, and that it mismanaged resources.
Two years ago, two fishing clubs asked for an inquiry by the Commerce inspector general into what they contended were the council's duplicitous attempts to undo or alter restrictions set in 2000 when President Clinton established the Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, a prelude to the designation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.
At that time, the groups also questioned the council's ethics, pointing to incidences of conflict of interest among council members.
The organizations that brought the latest complaints are reputable groups whose claims shouldn't be ignored. Hawaii's congressional representatives would be remiss if they did not press for a thorough review.