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Stephen Taufen

A public watchdog and advocate for fishermen and their coastal communities. Taufen is an "insider" who blew the whistle on the international profit laundering between global affiliates of North Pacific seafood companies, who use illicit accounting to deny the USA the proper taxes on seafood trade. The same practices are used to lower ex-vessel prices to the fleets, and to bleed monies from our regional economy.

February 27th

GAO on DAPs: Councils Lack Effective Participation Framework

The United States Government Accountability Office has just released a February 2006 report on fisheries: GAO-06-289 is entitled "Core Principles and a Strategic Approach Would Enhance Stakeholder Participation in Developing Quota-Based Programs."

The 55-page report was prepared upon request of several US Senators involved in key committees on fisheries (Olympia Snowe and Maria Cantwell and John Kerry) and it can be found on the website under recently issued reports. The report centers on Dedicated Access Privilege (DAP) programs and reviewed aspects of effective participation by fishermen and other stakeholders critical to development of DAPs - which are designed to end overfishing and promote conservation. Nine already implemented DAPs of various types were quickly overviewed, as well.

Let me outline some quotes to save you some reading, and then go on to make a few observations and comments about the report. It is a good first step, but our leading problem with many of the tables is that they result from interviews of 58 regional council members, not hundreds of stakeholders. NOAA makes the easy capitulations, but also lays down its hammer in a pre-release letter that is included with the report.

While that survey reflects a generally good understanding of certain process problems, it's like asking racetrack officials, horse owners and bookies to comment on track operations and what the public feels, rather than the bettors who stand to lose the most while paying for expenses to get to the track and feed themselves. Insiders have a clear upper edge and might be just a little biased as to how well things are going. Would that crew and skippers could have been independently surveyed, and asked far more insightful questions, like ones regarding whether or not DAP programs that include cooperatives or linkages with processors should occur at all.

First, here are some highlights, in the GAO's words:

What the GAO found: The four councils (incl. the NPFMC) reviewed lack key elements of an effective stakeholder participation framework and therefore maybe missing opportunities for all stakeholders to participate in the DAP program development process. While stakeholders can testify at council meetings, this one-way communication is not an effective way to share information because it does not lead to a dialogue between stakeholders and decision makers.

Specifically, council practices do not fully adhere to the core principles we identified for effective stakeholder participation, nor are they based on a strategic approach - one through which all key stakeholders are identified, specific participation goals are defined, and participation plans are created.

Core principles include: using an open and clearly defined decision-making process; making key information readily available and understandable; actively conducting outreach and soliciting stakeholder input (and involving them early and throughout); fostering responsiveness and interactive communication; using formal and informal participation methods; and including all stakeholder interests. Current practices of the councils we reviewed do not fully reflect such core principles or include an implementation strategy.

While not legally required to do so, NMFS may be missing opportunities to enhance stakeholder participation in the DAP program development process.

What the GAO recommends: That NMFS establish a formal policy for stakeholder participation, including adopting a core set of principles; provide guidance and training to the councils and others on developing and using a strategic approach to stakeholder participation; and ensure that the councils develop and implement a framework for effective stakeholder participation. Such a framework should include making key information available and understandable and fostering responsive, interactive communication between stakeholders and decision makers.

Among the methods suggested to enhance participation were greater outreach; holding meetings using different times, locations and formats; streamlining the DAP program development process; diversifying the interests represented in the council process; and sharing decision making authority. They also mention broadcasting meetings to reach those who cannot attend in person, and using facilitators to run meetings.

Finally, stakeholders said the councils could share decision-making authority by putting DAP proposals to a vote in a referendum and participation experts suggested using collaborative or consensus-based decision making that allows stakeholders to fully explore issues together.

The East Coast's Marine Resource Education Project (MREP) was cited as an example of promising practices: providing stakeholders with training on fisheries management and science to help them better understand the council process and DAP issues, teaching the importance of being involved early and throughout the process, and providing information exchange in informal settings. However, such training can be costly and may reach relatively few stakeholders.

What NMFS agreed to do: To form a working group to develop a stakeholder participation policy, including core principles, to guide those activities; to provide training to the councils on participation policy; and work with councils to implement a framework that includes jointly-developed core principles.

What words we found interesting: In 1993, Executive Order 12866 was issued to reform the regulatory process by, among other things, making the process more accessible and open to the public. Specifically, the order directs federal agencies to seek the involvement of those who are intended to benefit from and those expected to be burdened by any regulation before issuing a notice of proposed rulemaking, and to give the public an opportunity to comment on any proposed regulation.

Some, especially those stakeholders who are new to the process and not members of a stakeholder organization, do not understand which meetings to attend and the appropriate times to submit information on DAP proposals. Finally, while all council members who responded to our survey said that they use stakeholder input in making decisions, they do not always provide explanations of how stakeholder input was used. For example, stakeholders tell us (the GAO) that when a council votes immediately after public comment, it is not always clear that their input was considered, particularly when the council's decision does not reflect the views expressed in public comment. In addition, council meeting minutes do not always address issues raised by stakeholders or explain how their input was used in making decisions.

Groundswell observations on the study results etc.: The highest marks for input considered by the councils as "very useful" was in the category of Advisory committee recommendations. And while stakeholder input is supposed to be enhanced by the right to be represented on the Advisory Panels, look at our earlier post on AlaskaReport to see how disastrously well that's going at the NPFMC.

The survey showed three groups to be by far the most "poorly represented or not represented" in the development of DAPs: crew, consumers, and members of the public. Of course, the "very well and well represented" were processors/dealers, vessel owners and even the environmentalists.

Regarding how well the councils do at clarifying how public comment is used in decision-making and reporting it in minutes, just go take a look at how many meetings behind the NPFMC is in posting meeting minutes on their website. Please download and read a few of them too, like ones from 2001 and 2002 that show early Gulf of Alaska rationalization in progress.

Reflecting the general honesty of the council survey, questions showed that the Complexity of DAP Programs "severely or substantially hinders" most the crew, skippers and fishing communities. And "does not hinder or slightly hinders" most the processors, dealers, environmentalists and vessel owners. By leaps and bounds above the other stakeholder groups, respondents admitted that the cost of travel and time away from work to attend council meetings most severely and substantially hinders the crew and skippers. And does not generally hinder environmentalists at all. Would that reflect a bias toward the presence of environmentalists and mere feelings that they are well funded, or do council members actually know that is the case?

And of course, discomfort in speaking out at meetings and the belief that one's input will not make a difference scored easily the highest as the most substantially and severely hinders for crews. And you know the rest.

A last question or two revealed some interesting confirmations. First, that stakeholders largely turn to the legislative process to obtain DAPs rather than use the council process because "stakeholders wanted to ensure that they got their way." It's a bit obvious the respondents were thinking about the big political players who can actually afford lobbyists, campaign contributions, and trips to Washington DC.

And the study found that the activities most helpful to stakeholders would be getting involved early and staying involved throughout the development of a DAP program. It's obvious they were certainly emphasizing the crew and skippers in checking off those "greatly and moderately improve" columns.

Showing the bureaucratic conundrum, and reflective of the group surveyed, the highest scores for "very and moderately effective" actions for improvement were in Reconciling Statutes governing fisheries management to streamline the DAP process. Gee, with all the national coordination the past three years in Washington DC get-togethers for regional councils and their leaders, who could have said otherwise? We were predictably disappointed that the scores were so flat (as effective as ineffective) for Diversifying the interests represented on fishery management councils and advisory panels.

NOAA's Hammer: In a pre-release NOAA response letter to the GAO, in Appendix IV, NOAA states, "The membership of advisory committees is determined by the Councils to fulfill specific tasks. While representation is important, of primary concerns to the Councils and NMFS is the committees have the necessary expertise to perform their mission and that they are of appropriate size to be productive."

The bureaucracy hammer rings again when NOAA answers an equally important matter: referendum by stakeholders. NOAA states, "In fact, Congress is considering amendments to the MSFCMA that would provide referenda in development of DAPs in certain regions of the country. Congress, NMFS, and the Councils will have to weigh the benefits of greater stakeholder involvement through such referenda against the need for procedural efficiencies."

You don't need a 'Racketeer Club' Dick Tracy decoder ring to understand those stances. While NOAA and the Councils decide whether or not they will get with the show, DAPs progress in the most important diverse fishery in the USA - the Gulf of Alaska. And as for the advisory panels, the North Pacific one is so processor lopsided as to make a laughingstock out of the importance of stakeholder involvement. The proper size seems to be determined by money-backing, and expertise seems to be determined by degree-of-going-along with the insider game.

In conclusion: The well-meaning GAO report offers us little more than an overview of (Council and NOAA) bureaucrat speak on stakeholder participation, when what we have been long complaining about is how rigged the process is, in the North Pacific. The GAO staff did an excellent job, and we hold no ill feelings toward their efforts - as it is Congress who determines what they examine. We hope the second survey will be conducted by the Department of Justice and choose the crews and skippers, communities and small businesses devastated by Crab privatization as respondents.

The recent Oregonian article on how two major West Coast processors want quota-domination schemes of their own - copycats of Alaska's racketeers - brings up another point. Why are lobbyists and senators the major stakeholders who seems to be getting the largest cut in return for rigging the forestays and backstays of the DAP yachts that are moving ahead under full processor winds? There's no "overfishing" driving them, just "overgreed." There's no "race to fish" (except by trawlers producing the lowest grade catch), just a "race to retire rich." And the NPFMC should be held to its claim as having controlled overfishing - so why are any DAPs needed when other tools can do the job?

Some of you will remember the GAO staff at the June council meeting in Girdwood, and we also saw them in California that month. Sure they talked with many dissatisfied fishermen who made public comments, but none of their sincerest criticisms (especially of the large parties controlling the process) are reported here. So, we hope Congress sends someone back to take a far deeper look than simply shine us on with more bureaucratic brightwork. Until then, keep writing your representatives to ask for more.

Stephen Taufen - Groundswell Fisheries Movement