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New top cop for NOAA, same problems for fishermen

Dale Jones recently lost his job. The chief of NOAA’s Office for Law Enforcement was removed from his position and publicly berated in news articles, op-eds and blogs across the country. While it’s easy to declare his departure a victory for reform, I think we need to look harder at the real issue. Chief Jones was never the problem. It’s the regulations — complicated, inefficient, almost impossible to understand — that are at fault here.

With apologies to all the police officers out there, it’s easy to dislike a cop — it’s easy to dislike anyone who is responsible for enforcing the rules. And in New England, it’s especially easy to dislike NOAA’s top cop, who has the unfortunate responsibility of enforcing often unpopular decisions against one of our most beloved groups: our fishermen and women.

Everyone likes fishermen. What’s not to like? These down-to-earth men and women are some of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. Although my career has often thrown me in the path of frustrated fishermen — justifiably exasperated by complex regulations, rules and requirements — we have always been able to work together and get the job done. After all, we all want the same thing: a healthy and thriving New England fishery.

But fishery management decisions are complex. The rules are filled with technical jargon, and the requirements can be near impossible to decipher. We joke that you need a lawyer, an accountant and a full administrative staff to properly run a commercial fishing boat.

Of course, most fishermen are not lawyers or accountants or administrators. They are hard-working men and women who manage a boat or two. How are they supposed to find the time and expertise to navigate the complexities of closed areas, research set-asides, gear size restrictions, and an almost endless list of acronyms like VTR, LOA, SFD and VMS?

It is absolutely unfair how the regulations for fishing are stacked against fishermen. One simple mistake, and suddenly a law has been violated and a fine must be paid. No wonder Dale Jones was so unpopular.

But here’s the thing. If fishery regulations don’t change — if they stay as complicated as they are today — then NOAA’s top cop will always be unpopular. There’s no way to win if the rules you need to enforce are too complicated to understand and affect a popular group of people.

The truth is that we need fisheries regulations. As unpopular as they are, we need rules and limitations to ensure that we’ll have enough fish to support New England’s commercial fishing industry in 2011 and 2111. We need the regulations, but we don’t need them to be so complex or confusing. As long as the regulations are difficult to understand, their enforcement will appear arbitrary, and their enforcers will be loathed.

And that’s really what happened to Dale Jones. I’ve had the opportunity to meet Chief Jones several times over the past decade, and even though he and I rarely saw eye-to-eye, the man I know simply doesn’t fit the portrait so many news stories painted. Chief Jones and NOAA’s fishery enforcement agents are a top-notch outfit working in a challenging environment where every decision is likely to be an unpopular one.

Before we berate NOAA’s fishery enforcement team, let’s consider their accomplishments.

Under the leadership of Dale Jones, NOAA’s enforcement unit earned certification from the Commission for Law Enforcement Accreditation, the gold standard for law enforcement authorities. NOAA’s enforcement agents have made our seas safer for observers through the Community Oriented Policing Program, which prevents violations in the first place and ensures that observers are not harassed. They’ve protected endangered species by enforcing CITES regulations and recently put an end to an illegal market in rare black coral. It was NOAA’s enforcement agents who busted a California sushi restaurant for selling whale meat. Their work has also protected whales from Stellwagen Bank to the Hawaiian islands.

NOAA’s enforcement agents are the ones who enforce the regulations that preserve our fisheries and protect our fishermen. They aren’t just doing their jobs. They are also protecting the livelihood of every commercial fisherman, from New England to Puget Sound.

Their achievements don’t end at the shore, either. After the terrorist attacks in New York City, the men and women of NOAA’s enforcement team volunteered as air marshals and helped restore air travel safely and quickly. They dug though the rubble of the fallen World Trade Center beside New York City’s police officers and firefighters. They helped locate and identify the remains of victims so their families and loved ones could find some closure. Under Chief Jones’ leadership, NOAA’s enforcement agents stepped up when our country was at its most vulnerable.

Honestly, I’m disappointed at how quickly we have rushed to judge Chief Jones for the smallest of issues — shredding papers, for example. It’s been the subject of countless front-page stories, but information security is a routine thing at NOAA and throughout the federal government.

Yet the accusations flew. Before we could even confirm what was shredded, politicians were calling for his ouster. I can’t help wonder if our love of commercial fishermen — and disdain for the rules-enforcers — helped fuel the fire.

It’s all really too bad. In the end, enforcement problems don't stem from any one person. And as much as we might not like the guys who enforce the rules, the commercial fishing industry can't police itself.

In the end, I fear we will all lose. Dale Jones — the straw man here — loses his job and reputation. NOAA loses a good leader. And fishermen lose because a weaker enforcement of regulations will only mean less fish to catch every year.

The only winner here is the existing collection of overly complicated fisheries regulations. Because with Dale Jones taking the heat, the regulations are not likely to face reform any time soon. And that’s a shame, because nothing in NOAA needs reform as much as the way our fisheries are managed. Until that happens, all of us, including our fishermen, are condemned to losing.

Jacob Levenson, 32, is a marine biologist with a bachelor of science degree in marine science from the University of New England, a master of science in criminal justice from Boston University, and a master of science in non-profit management from Northeastern University. He holds a 100-ton captain’s license and has worked aboard everything from whale-watch vessels to sailing schooners. Levenson has worked with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, for NOAA in the Office for Law Enforcement, and the National Marine Fisheries Service's Fishery Statistics Office.



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