Zurik: Sea lords and the secret votes that made them rich
Thursday, February 9th 2017, 10:10 pm CSTWritten by: Lee Zurik, Chief Investigative Reporter
What do you have the right to see, as a citizen of this country? if a vote takes place that essentially gives away a public resource for nothing, should you see who votes yes and who votes no?
When we showed Congressman Garret Graves the response to our Freedom of Information Act request, he laughed.
The response was a heavily-redacted tally of votes, conducted years ago, that helped hand over tens of millions of dollars every year to a small group of fishermen. We requested the vote count in our FOIA request, but the federal government gave us little of the information we requested, blacking out the key part: who voted yes and who voted no.
"This is a public body," notes Graves, a Louisiana Republican. "You can't hide the votes from this. That's not OK."
When we showed him the blacked-out lists again, he tells us, "Not for long - because I'm going to get the answer to that."
The federal program, unknown to most taxpayers, allows a handful of businesses and fishermen to make millions off a government resource swimming in federal waters: red snapper.
The votes helped create the system that now allows 50 businesses and fishermen to control 81 percent of the nation's commercial red snapper allocation. Those fishermen can make a total of $23 million every year. And the government gets nothing in return from the fishermen.
"This is a public asset," Graves says. "You and I own this. The public owns this. You know, people always talk about [how] government needs to run like a business. Could you ever imagine a business saying, 'Oh, here's our inventory, and it's free! You come in a grocery store, you take whatever you want.' No, it's not ever going to happen. And it shouldn't be happening here."
The vote predates Graves' term in Washington. But last decade, Congress helped orchestrate it.
Experts at the time were worried about a shrinking red snapper stock and about safety for commercial fishermen. Each January, fishermen would race to the water, trying to catch as much snapper as possible - sometimes in dangerous conditions.
The feds wanted to start what's called an IFQ program, short for "individual fishing quota". Fishermen would get an allocation to fish the entire year.
"I think that IFQ's, or finding a way to allocate a sector of the commercial fisheries, is actually a good management tool," Graves says. "If you just say we're going to do 2 million pounds in commercial fisheries, what's going to happen is everyone who has a boat and a commercial license, they're going to go out there and fish as hard as they can. It's a race to the bottom. The allocation can't be just given away."
Congress required three votes - first by a little-known public body called the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council, an 11-member body that's primarily appointed by the five Gulf states.
After the Gulf Council vote, Congress also required two votes by the commercial fishermen who already were permitted to fish for red snapper in the Gulf.
And those are the votes that the federal government won't let us see.
"To have some nameless, faceless bureaucrat or some nameless, faceless commission, making this decision - that's not the right way to do it," Graves says. "That's what happens when you have a lack of transparency."
"It required two referenda for us to implement those, one at the beginning and one at the end," recalls Dr. Roy Crabtree, regional administrator for NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service and a federal representative on the Gulf Council. "And the Congress specified how the votes were to be weighted and who was to get the vote. And we conducted those two referenda, and both passed."
These were not ordinary votes.
"The votes were weighted based on the landings history over a period of time, as per Congress's instructions," Crabtree tells us.
They weighted the votes like this: The more red snapper you caught in prior years, the more your vote counted.
"I didn't get a choice in how it was done," says Texas fisherman Buddy Guindon. "Congress made the law and we, you know, went along with it."
Guindon can make $1.4 million a year because of this program. Only two fishermen have more shares than he does. Guindon says he actually voted against the program but, in a frank interview, he told us he didn't realize how profitable the IFQ program would make his business.
We ask Graves whether the people benefiting from the "I feel bad laughing," Graves says. "But this whole thing is so ridiculous."
Grave says it's illogical to him that the government is not getting anything in return from such a valuable public resource - a government that allows that resource to be given to a handful of so-called "sea lords", and that allows those same shareholders to vote on a program that made some of them rich.
"I can't wait to hear their explanation," he says, "for how they... think they can hide the vote for a public body and an entity that is allocating a public asset."
We appealed the redaction of the votes to the federal government. They denied our appeal.
The feds say Congress gave no indication that those votes were intended to be released to the public. They also said, since the weighted votes were based on their commercial harvest, it constituted confidential commercial information.
We said, since the fisherman are assigned catch shares based on their commercial harvest, that argument is irrelevant; we already know who caught the most. We were still denied.
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