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Conflicts, lax oversight shroud secretive Fisheries fund

A federal fisheries oversight council has stymied inquiries by congressmen, journalists and others over the past few years.
Source: Civil Beat

Honolulu, HAWAII — In the past 10 years, millions of dollars have flowed through an obscure federal fund aimed at supporting commercial tuna fishermen in Hawaii and three U.S. Pacific island territories.

But limited oversight, a process of awarding contracts mostly behind closed doors and a reluctance to produce public records about the fund have stymied efforts to find out how the money is being spent, who is receiving it and whether it’s being used in accordance with federal law, a Civil Beat investigation shows.

Moreover, records obtained by Civil Beat under the Freedom of Information Act over the past two years show that thousands of dollars have been awarded to members of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council. Projects paid for by the fund have directly benefited council members’ own business interests. And money has also gone to contractors who support council positions on issues like increasing catch limits for the lucrative tuna fishery or opposing expansion of marine national monuments.

The Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund is rarely discussed openly at full meetings of the 16-member council. Decisions about how the money will be spent are made in meetings of the council’s five-member executive and budget committee that consists of the council chair and vice chairs representing Hawaii and each territory — American Samoa, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

For several years, millions of dollars flowed into the fund from penalties against foreign vessels fishing illegally in U.S. waters around remote Pacific islands. In more recent years, the money has come largely from payments made by Hawaii longliners to buy the territories’ unused tuna quotas.

Wespac’s longtime executive director, Kitty Simonds, presides over the grant application process used to tap the fund. She steers the project proposals that have been requested by local officials in the territories and Hawaii. She’s listed as the principal contact for awards and signs many of the checks when money leaves the fund, records show.

Simonds has been unavailable for an interview for the past three weeks.

The secrecy surrounding the Sustainable Fisheries Fund is frustrating some members of Congress, including U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, who put language in last year’s appropriations bill to require a full accounting of the fund.

“We just couldn’t lay eyes on what the money was spent on,” Schatz told Civil Beat. “We came to the conclusion we needed a robust accounting.”

Read more at Civil Beat