The U.S. commerce secretary has reversed course and said Wednesday that he will allow more fishermen who have been accused of violations to have their cases reviewed for fairness by a special investigator.
Gary Locke also said he had agreed to give the investigator discretion to freeze pending penalties against those fishermen.
Locke had denied both requests in January, drawing protests from Northeastern lawmakers who said it was another assault by the federal government on the region's fishing industry.
Earlier this month, Locke and Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, met with Sen. John Kerry to discuss fishing issues. Last week, Kerry wrote them a letter requesting, among other things, the concessions that Locke is now granting.
Kerry called Locke's move a "welcome first step to repair the relationship" between fishermen and government regulators.
"Our fishermen, fishing communities and the Massachusetts congressional delegation have been ringing this alarm bell and this is very welcome news that the government is responding," Kerry said in a news release.
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama nominated Locke as the next U.S. ambassador to China, and Kerry is the chairman of the Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations, which reviews such nominations. Asked if there were political implications to the decision announced Wednesday, Locke responded, "Not at all."
Locke said he decided to allow fishermen to file more complaints after speaking earlier this month with his investigator, retired Judge Charles Swartwood, about whether fishermen had been given adequate opportunity to file complaints.
"I determined that we needed to, out of fairness, out of just going the extra mile, to make sure that we were addressing any and all concerns and complaints, that we would reopen this," Locke said in a conference call with reporters.
Richard Burgess, a Gloucester fishermen who has fought $85,000 worth of fines for what he describes as minor bureaucratic and paperwork violations, said Locke's move is a start but more needs to done to make things right.
"We've just been lied to, and we've been cheated and it's about time somebody did something," he said.
NOAA had taken various steps before Wednesday to reform fishery enforcement, including putting tighter controls on the fund that holds fishermen's fines and shifting the burden on justifying fines to the agency, rather than making fishermen prove the fines were unfair.
"We are committed to sustaining fishing and growing fishing jobs, which are the lifeblood of so many of our coastal communities," Lubchenco said.
In 2009, Lubchenco ordered a review of the law enforcement system, following years of complaints by Northeast fishermen of excessive fines, retaliation and bias in enforcing rules that govern, for instance, where and when fishing is allowed and what gear can be used.
Last year, the Commerce Department's inspector general released a report that gave examples of abusive treatment of fishermen, though it said such treatment was not widespread. The report said the region's fishermen were given double the fines of other regions and the process for penalizing violators appeared arbitrary and unfair.
Defenders of the law enforcement agency have said the inspector general's report was flawed and politically motivated. They said the agency's strong record of protecting the fishery was being attacked by a vocal minority who were caught cheating.
Still, the report has had significant fallout.
The head of the law enforcement agency, Dale Jones, was removed after the inspector general revealed Jones had ordered dozens of documents shredded during the investigation.
The inspector general also highlighted several possibly questionable penalties against fishermen, and Locke appointed Swartwood as a "special master" to review the cases.
Fishermen and lawmakers then asked for more time to file additional complaints for Swartwood to consider, saying the fishermen had been hesitant to do so in a system they considered biased.
Locke initially said the inspector general's office had worked hard to ferret out cases with possible abuse and expressed doubt that large numbers of fishermen were still waiting to be heard. He also said if he allowed penalties to be suspended, it could be seen as prejudging the outcome of Swartwood's review.
Now, Locke has agreed to give fishermen and businesses until May 6 to file new complaints. Locke also said he decided it was important to give a "neutral, respected special master" like Swartwood the authority to decide whether to grant a stay of penalties against fishermen in cases he's reviewing.
In other changes announced Wednesday, NOAA has established uniform penalties nationwide for each violation, as opposed to the former system in which penalties varied by region. And it has agreed to an independent audit of the fund that takes in the fines fishermen pay for violating fishery law.
The agency had been criticized for poorly tracking the fund, and for using the money on expenditures such as vehicles for fishery enforcement officials and a luxury undercover boat. On Wednesday, Lubchenco said policy now prohibits those funds from being used on vehicles or boats.