Fisheries Observers Gain Whistleblower Protections
New Law Takes Effect as NMFS Undertakes Review of Grievance Procedures
Washington, DC — New whistleblower protections for federal contract employees, including Fisheries Observers, take effect on July 1, 2013. These new statutory rights will shield observers from retaliation for reporting mismanagement and marine resource and safety violations, according to the Association for Professional Observers (APO) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) which today urged agency officials to fully implement the new rules as soon as they take effect.
Professional observers monitor commercial fisheries’ compliance with catch limits, by-catch rules and protections for marine mammals, seabirds and sea turtles, among other regulations. They are not federal employees but work for companies under contract with National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, also known as the National Marine Fisheries Service or NMFS.
As contract employees, Fisheries Observers had no forum for redress of complaints and risked dismissal, blackballing or being assigned to “punishment voyages” for raising fleet violations, as detailed by a complaint filed by APO and PEER. In response to that complaint, NMFS has agreed to develop a “formal communications process for observers’ concerns” as well as a “transparent observer tracking system” to monitor practices like blackballing observers from available fleet deployments by operators. The new whistleblower law will put teeth behind whatever administrative reforms NMFS ultimately adopts.
“Observers risk losing their job for simply following written observer program mandates and doing their job with integrity,” said Elizabeth Mitchell, President of the Association for Professional Observers. “Hopefully, the new law will add a sorely needed level of protection for them, which currently doesn’t exist.”
Enacted as part of National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, the new law requires the Inspector General to investigate contract employee complaints of reprisal for disclosing violations of laws, rules or regulations, danger to public safety, gross mismanagement or waste of federal funds. The law authorizes contract employees to file for jury trials in federal district court once administrative remedies are exhausted. In addition, the law requires that –
- All contracts entered into after July 1st must incorporate the new whistleblower provisions;
- All existing contracts that are amended must include the whistleblower provisions as part of any modification; and
- Agency heads “shall ensure that contractors, subcontractors, and grantees of the agency inform their employees in writing of the rights and remedies provided under this section, in the predominant native language of the workforce.”
“Fisheries Observers now work on floating plantations awash in political pressures, making them one workforce in critical need of whistleblower protections,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the new law remains in effect for only four years while the Government Accountability Office reviews its effectiveness. “The effectiveness of this law will depend to some extent on whether the National Marine Fisheries Service commits itself to ending the culture of silence at sea.”