Recreational angler and fishing advocate Patrick Paquette has succeeded in obtaining rare video footage showing activities aboard industrial Atlantic herring trawl vessels. The video was shown at a public fisheries management meeting in June 2009 and documents loopholes in the current monitoring system and bycatch being brought aboard the vessels.
On Monday, a federal judge approved final settlement of a lawsuit that ends a year-long struggle between Mr. Paquette, who represents several recreational fishing organizations in Massachusetts, including the 60-year-old Massachusetts Striped Bass Association, and the nation’s fisheries management agency. At the center of this struggle was the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
“This is an important step in making sure the government properly handles requests for public information,” said Paquette. “NMFS has acknowledged that they gave me the run-around, and now they are changing their protocols so this doesn’t happen again. By law, we have a right to know.”
In June 2009, Mr. Paquette attended a meeting of the New England Fisheries Management Council’s Atlantic Herring Oversight Committee. At that meeting, a committee member, who also represents the industry vessels shown in the video, and staff from the NMFS Northeast Fisheries Observer Program, presented a video made by the Northeast Fisheries Observer Program described as an “Observer Training Video.”
Mr. Paquette made verbal and more formal written FOIA requests for the video to gain access to the valuable footage of how federal observers interact with the rarely seen operations aboard industrial midwater pair trawlers. Mr. Paquette’s requests for the video were denied by both council and NMFS staff, despite it being made public at the meeting.
Represented by the non-profit law firm Earthjustice, Mr. Paquette questioned the denial and filed an expanded request for additional records related to both the video and NMFS’s actions in denying the request. After these requests were also denied, primarily through agency delay, Earthjustice filed an appeal for the video with NMFS’s parent agency, the U.S. Department of Commerce. When they failed to make a timely ruling, Earthjustice filed a complaint on Mr. Paquette’s behalf in federal district court in Washington, DC in December 2009.
Immediately following the court filing, the Department of Commerce granted Mr. Paquette’s administrative appeal and released the video. Subsequent negotiations involving the Department of Justice and NMFS eventually resulted in the release of additional video footage, related documents, and improvements in NMFS’s FOIA program.
“We’re satisfied that Mr. Paquette obtained the important video footage he asked for, but NMFS’s response to his simple request for a public document was illogical and illegal,” said Roger Fleming, attorney with Earthjustice. “The ocean is a public resource, and it is NMFS’s job to monitor these enormous fishing ships and manage fisheries resources sustainably. The Freedom of Information Act is a critical tool through which the public can gain the information necessary to hold our government, and these ships, accountable. NMFS needs to do a much better job responding to the public.”
Mr. Paquette’s requests for the video were made to help his organizations and the public participate in reform measures for this controversial high volume fishery, currently under development by the council in an action known as Amendment 5 to the Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan. The video provides important insight into the sampling procedures of federal observers and demonstrates some of the loopholes in the existing monitoring program.
Herring pair trawlers are industrial fishing ships up to 165 feet long that can hold more than one million pounds of catch. They drag massive nets behind them that are so big that one net is often towed by two vessels in a practice called pair trawling, and the net’s small mesh is capable of catching everything in its path. Many fishermen believe that these trawlers are significant contributors to the fragile state of our marine ecosystem.
The next council herring committee meeting, where reform of the midwater trawl industry’s monitoring program will be discussed, is Tuesday and Wednesday, July 27-28, in Portland, Maine.