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Feds told to return nearly $650k to fishermen

Money caught by a hook
Money caught by a hook

The U.S. Commerce Secretary has ordered his agency to return almost $650,000 from 11 cases against commercial fishermen in the Northeast involving "excessive" fines and "selective enforcement" that were levied against them by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Law Enforcement.

In February, CBS News reported on complaints from Northeast fishermen that they had been subject to overly aggressive law enforcement. The Commerce Department appointed an independent judge to conduct a review of 30 cases against the fishermen.

"For too long, our fishermen have been the victims of intimidation and enormous penalties" said Senator John Kerry (D-MA) in response to the report, "Now unfair fines are being refunded and now the reality of what happened has been publicly exposed which may be just as important."

According to the report released today, the independent judge, Charles Swartwood, found fishing regulations to be "complex, complicated, constantly changing, and in some cases, contradictory."

In his report, Swartwood said he also found a "siege mentality throughout the fishing industry" where fishermen feel they are treated as "criminals".

Swartwood noted that fishermen are "paranoid" about violating a regulation because they could end up paying a "coerced amount" or run the risk of losing in the appeals process "which could force the fisherman out of business".

In a memo today Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said the cases where Swartwood found fault with NOAA showed "a lack of supervision, oversight and standards in the work of NOAA law enforcement."

Today Senator Kerry and other members of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation called for NOAA to take action against the staff who were responsible. However, Locke stopped short of calling for any disciplinary action against NOAA employees. Locke pointed to a series of regulatory reforms that have been made since the complaints first came to his attention.