After a ban on congressional earmarks, many thought the practice of members of Congress setting aside special funds for favored projects may have ended.
Not so fast.
Nowadays, expenditures for pet projects not included in the proposed budgets of federal agencies are called “congressionally designated items.”
Take the case of one such item proposed for Fiscal Year 2010 by the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye: $3 million to “provide stop-gap relief for Hawai`i fishermen” targeting bigeye tuna.
According to a press release issued by the senator’s office, “If Hawai`i fishermen are no longer allowed to fish for BET [bigeye tuna], it is feared that they will lose their market to foreign fisheries.” (The longline fishery at the time was facing a limit on bigeye tuna catches imposed by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission.) All the funding “will go directly to temporary relief while policy and enforcement changes are pursued,” the press release states.
So how has the money been spent?
To find out, Environment Hawai`i filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Here’s what we learned:
On March 1, 2011, about a year after the congressional appropriation, Kitty Simonds, executive director of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, was pressuring Mike Tosatto, the director of NMFS’ Pacific Islands Regional Office, to move quickly in getting the funds to the council. The council receives all its funds in the form of grants from NMFS. To tap into this award, then, the council needed to prepare a grant application acceptable to the agency.
“heads up – I got a call today from dki’s cos asking if we sent in the grant stuff,” Simonds wrote. “DKI” refers to the senator; “cos” his chief of staff. “I need to work on whatever it is that you folks are uncomfortable about. I believe you folks are going to get a call tomorrow.”
There is no record of any call, but on March 17, NMFS staffer Scott Bloom forwarded to Wespac’s Eric Kingma a copy of a letter from Inouye that described how he intended the funds to be used: “… to provide relief for Hawai`i fishermen whose big eye tuna (BET) quotes are not sufficient to consistently meet market demand, and to provide technical assistance to American Samoa as they develop their own BET fishery.”
With NMFS taking an administrative fee of 5 percent — $150,000 – off the top of the award, Wespac was left to figure out how to spend the remaining $2.85 million.
By early April 2011, it had come up with a plan. Some elements did not pass muster with NMFS headquarters, but after several revisions, in August 2011, NMFS approved the grant application.
- Administration costs (including hiring of grant coordinators, purchasing desks, providing internet service, business cards, and parking) will eat up $440,750 of the grant;
- Travel costs will come to $241,100;
- Supplies (“including but not limited to card stock, pens, pencils, erasers, staples, glue, liquid paper, and tape” as well as copying of documents) are anticipated to account for expenses of $30,000;
- Equipment “such as fish finding sonar” will cost $100,000;
- Contractual services (other than the grant coordinators) are penciled in at $1,988,250;
- Other costs – “brochures, information sheets, reports, meeting notices, etc.” – are expected to amount to $50,000.
Relief for Longliners
The “contractual services” are further explained in the application. Of the nearly $2 million budgeted for this, more than half — $1,022,250 – is for “relief to Hawai`i longline fishermen from bigeye tuna catch limits.”
“This project will involve the development and implementation of a fuel costs assistance program that will provide relief to Hawai`i longline fishermen that fish for tuna in the [Eastern Pacific Ocean],” the application states. In 2010, as the longline fleet approached its bigeye quota in the Western Pacific, Hawai`i longliners had to fish in the more distant waters of the Eastern Pacific. That, apparently was part of the justification for this – although since 2011, there has been effectively no cap on the bigeye catch of the fleet in either the Eastern or Western Pacific.
But the application also states that this project “will provide fuel cost assistance to Hawai`i longline fishermen that land bigeye tuna in Guam, [Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands], or American Samoa.”
A consultant is to figure out a formula to allocate the fuel assistance; “the same or additional consultants will be used to implement and administer the program,” the application says. (Environment Hawai`i has not been able to learn whether a consultant has been hired for this portion of the grant.)
According to the budget laid out in the application, $48,000 is allocated to pay a consultant to design the project, while $202,450 will be paid to the “consultant organization” to implement the program. “The remaining $809,800 will be provided as fuel cost relief to Hawai`i fishermen and distributed to qualifying vessels,” the application states. Finally, $5,000 is allocated for “education and outreach materials.”
A Dock for Tri Marine
Tri Marine is one of the world’s largest tuna processors, boasting annual revenues on the order of half a trillion dollars. The company has recently taken over the old Chicken of the Sea cannery site in American Samoa, where its subsidiary, Samoa Tuna Processors (STP), is proposing to build a new dock and a facility that it will use to export bigeye tuna to fresh-fish markets in Japan and the U.S. mainland. Up to now, the American Samoa facilities had exported canned tuna only, consisting mostly of albacore and skipjack.
To support this effort, which will allow Hawai`i longliners to offload their catch in the territory, the council will be paying $200,000. “The STP facility is the first large scale operation in American Samoa that will be conducting fresh fish export for the U.S. and Asian markets,” the grant application states. “The primary species STP is looking to export is bigeye tuna…. Through a private/public partnership with the American Samoan Government, STP, and the Council, funds will be used to purchase” construction materials.
In addition, the grant is to pay $200,000 to contract consultants to design and develop plans for expanded docking space in Saipan. This is needed, the application states, “to attract Hawai`i-based longline vessels to CNMI… Adequate docking space for longline vessels could attract vessels from Hawai`i to base their fishing operations out of CNMI which in turn, may reduce the number of active fishing vessels out of Hawai`i, potentially reducing bigeye tuna landings in Hawai`i and therefore extending the ability of the fleet to fish in the [Western Pacific] for the entire calendar year.”
According to NMFS’ Honolulu office, which administers the grant, a total of $966,381.16 has been disbursed to the council, as of mid-March. The most recent disbursement was made last November.
The staffer who oversees grant administration said he had been informed that the council “is investigating alternatives to the fuel subsidy program,” but, “until I see an official request for reprogramming, nothing has changed.”
Before any funds can be released in support of the construction of the dock for Samoa Tuna Processors, an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement must be prepared to satisfy requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. A spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers in Honolulu said that the agency would be preparing NEPA documentation, but that it had not yet been done.
At the March meeting of the council, Mike Tosatto of NMFS’ Pacific Islands Regional Office said that his agency had notified the Corps that the project would not adversely disturb essential fish habitat, one of the factors the Corps must consider in deciding whether to issue a permit for the dock.
Volume 23, Number 10 — April 2013