The meeting held in the conference room of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Honolulu office on the afternoon of January 29 must have been a doozy.
As a result of what he claimed was uncivil behavior of a participant, Robin Baird, a cetacean scientist with the Cascadia Research Collective and one of the most published experts on the subject of false killer whales in Hawai`i, resigned his seat on the council’s Protected Species Advisory Committee.
When approached by Environment Hawai`i, several other participants in the meeting of the council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee’s (SSC) subcommittee on false killer whales would not discuss what transpired there. They did, however, note that council staff had made an audio recording of the proceedings.
On February 24, just a few days after learning of the existence of the recording, we filed a formal Freedom of Information Act request to obtain a copy of it.
The response came on April 4. “The Western Pacific Fishery Management Council staff has advised that an audio recording of the subcommittee meeting was erased on February 22, 2014,” stated the letter signed by Samuel D. Rauch III, administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service. “We are in the process of reviewing the circumstances of this action.”
No Public Notice
The apparent destruction of a government record is not the only irregularity about the SSC subcommittee meeting. Under the governing law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, notice of meetings of the council, SSC, and all other council committees and advisory groups are presumed to be public and must be announced in the Federal Register.
A review of Federal Register notices in the weeks before the meeting turned up no such notice. This oversight was confirmed in an email from Michael Tosatto, administrator of NMFS’ Pacific Islands Regional Office in Honolulu. “As the result of an unintended omission,” Tosatto said, “there was no Federal Register notice for that sub-committee meeting. We will provide the council staff with clarifying direction regarding public notice requirements” in the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
As we reported in March, Baird found his treatment at the hands of Milani Chaloupka, an environmental consultant from Queensland, Australia, so insulting that he resigned his position with the council’s Protected Species Advisory Committee (PSAC) two days later. In his resignation letter, he described the behavior of Chaloupka, who sits on both the SSC and the Protected Species Advisory Committee, as “unprofessional and highly inappropriate.”
“In normal work environments it is clear to me that his tone and adversarial questioning would be considered abusive behavior and would not be tolerated, and I am certainly not willing to tolerate it.”
Baird expanded on his experience of the meeting in a phone interview with Environment Hawai`i. After he had made his presentation on his recent work in estimating false killer whale abundance through photo identification of individual animals, Baird said, committee members “started asking questions. At the outset, they were all very legitimate questions about our techniques, analytical techniques, et cetera.
“After a while, it deteriorated into what I could best describe as a very adversarial situation. It went from me being asked clarifying questions, or them questioning aspects of the science, to like being on the stand in a court case. Instead of me being asked a civil question, it turned into criticism of me for not providing more information to them, or not providing information in advance. It was bizarre.”
Baird went on to say that he had been asked by council staff to present information on his analyses – “just that.”
But at the meeting itself, he said, “at the beginning, an agenda was passed around. It was the first time I had seen this…. If you’re going to have a draft agenda, if you want things to be discussed, it’s a good idea to give people a head’s up. And this wasn’t done.
“The meeting then deteriorated into what I would characterize as extremely unprofessional, inappropriate behavior. Milani repeatedly criticized me, not my science.”
“The line of questioning became so unpleasant that I packed up my stuff and walked out of the room. Life is too short for me to put myself in those kinds of situations. Any normal person who was there as a witness would consider it abusive behavior as well.”
Chaloupka did not respond to Environment Hawai`i’s questions about the incident by press time.
At Wespac’s March meeting in Guam, no mention was made of Baird’s departure during discussion of changes to the “council family,” neither was Environment Hawai`i’s FOIA request mentioned in executive director Kitty Simonds’ review of administrative matters.
Council Staff Limits Public’s Access to Documents
Five years ago this month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report containing several recommendations to improve transparency at Wespac. One of them was to have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration work with the council chair to publish council records, including materials provided to council members ahead of each meeting, on Wespac’s website,www.wpcouncil.org
In the past, during the course of a meeting, staff would print out copies of most of the documents that were distributed to council members in their briefing books. These copies would be stacked in long rows on a table at the back of the room where members of the public could pick them up. A binder containing the copies would also be available for the public’s perusal.
More recently, although the council still prints out some documents for the public, it has begun to post some of them to its website.
Before the council’s 159th meeting held in March Guam and Saipan, several documents had been posted to the website. During the meeting, however, it became clear from discussions that much more material had been provided to council members via their online dropboxes. Only a handful of documents were available to the public.
While at the meeting in Guam, Environment Hawai`i staff began looking through what appeared to be the public binder. Wespac public information officer Sylvia Spalding then abruptly closed the binder and removed it, saying it was not intended for the public, but for council staff. She then put out the binder with documents for public review; it was a fraction of the size of the binder she snatched away.
Both the public binder and Wespac’s website included none of the council’s documents for the Protected Resources portion of the agenda and only two documents in the Pelagic and International Fisheries section. When asked at the meeting when documents on protected species and pelagic fisheries would be made available on the council’s website, Spalding said she was too busy with writing press releases.
Environment Hawai`i was able to obtain the documents provided to council members, though without the help of council staff. They included 13 documents on protected species and 14 on pelagic and international fisheries. In fact, the council was provided with many more documents on nearly all agenda items than were posted to Wespac’s website, distributed on the public handout table, or available in the public briefing book.
Spalding did not respond to questions about the lack of public access to council documents by press time.
The council’s ongoing refusal to post documents online has drawn the attention of members of Congress. Rep. Henry Waxman of California and Rep. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, members of Congress representing voters in California and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, respectively, wrote Kathryn Sullivan, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NMFS administrator Rauch last December, inquiring about Wespac’s slow action to implement the recommendations in the 2009 GAO report.
“[P]ublic documents such as briefing materials used by Council members to make decisions are still not available on the Council website,” they stated in a recent letter. “This is a notable deficiency, as all seven of the other regional fishery management councils have extensive documentation online. The lack of documentation is of particular concern in the case of the western Pacific, where currently a concerned citizen of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands or Guam would have to spend over $2,000 and travel 4,000 miles to Hawai`i to review the documents in person. The Western Pacific Council could follow the example of every other fishery management council and make its documents accessible on its website.”
A response was requested by January 7. It finally arrived on March 19, in the form of a letter from Sullivan.
“I am pleased to report that additional transparency improvements have been initiated,” she wrote, “including archiving past meeting minutes and documents, as well as streaming live regular meetings. In fact, the Council … posted briefing materials online for the most recent meeting, which took place this March….”
Despite those assurances, the full range of documents given to council members at the 159th meeting, which was ongoing as Sullivan’s letter was written, still do not appear on the council’s website. As for posting past briefing materials, files posted for the 158th meeting, held last October, include a parking map, two press releases, and minutes. None of the reports or other materials distributed at the meeting have been put on the council’s website. (However, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by Environment Hawai`i, most documents are available at the FOIA Online website: query DOC-NOAA-2014-000073.)