Halibut taken as bycatch in Bering Sea trawl fisheries           Credit: sitkawild.org


North Pacific Council’s New Public Comment Policy Triggers Intense Reactions
By Peggy Parker, Seafoodnews.com

 Personal attacks and profanity laced five of the 250 written comments submitted to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council last month on just one of the half dozen issues before the Alaska fisheries management panel. Council staff pulled the comments after they’d been live for a few hours and reached out to each author to ask them to resubmit their comments without the offensive language. Only one did.

The issue was abundance based management (ABM)of halibut in the Bering Sea, where far more halibut is taken as incidental bycatch in bottom trawls than by halibut quota holders with their longline gear. Public testimony during the meeting was intense but for the most part civil. ABM is one of those lightening-rod issues — like the on-shore/off-shore fight over the Bering Sea/Aleutian Island fisheries and others — that the council has faced in the nearly half century it has managed Alaska’s federal fisheries.

But this time, the intensity of stakeholders’ frustration combined with the increased access of the Internet to fray the civility line expected in public comments.

In an executive session a few days before the ten-day meeting ended, according to minutes posted then, “… members of the public linked the comment portal for Halibut ABM and Salmon Bycatch and broadcast it on social media platforms (Facebook, Reddit), which generated numerous comments from people not familiar with the Council process.

“Several of these comments included profanity or threats, and these comments were promptly removed by staff consistent with prior Council direction,” the minutes explained. “Additionally, numerous comments were made prior to any documents being uploaded, and many comments were unrelated to the eAgenda item under which they were posted.”

The Council staff tries to provide documents at least two weeks prior to the first advisory body of the Council, the Scientific and Statistical Committee convenes, but it isn’t unusual for material to be posted later than that. Many of the analyses are 300-400 page long and while reading it prior to commenting is ideal, it’s safe to say not everyone who comments has done that.

The pushback to the new policy has settled around two inflection points. The first one is described in the section of the new policy below:

* Clarify one comment per person per agenda item; however an individual can submit comments on behalf of their organization as well as on behalf of themself
* Consistent with the Department of Commerce policy: no vulgar language, personal attacks, offensive terms targeting protected classes, promoting service or products, non-fisheries-related (off topic), unsupported accusations
* Allow staff to remove comments that are inconsistent with policy

Determining “non-fisheries-related (off topic)” comments may be tricky, some stakeholders say.

“I’ve been engaged with the NPFMC council for almost 30 years and public comment has ebbed and flowed based on the issue,” said Duncan Fields, former Council member and active fisherman in Kodiak.

“In the nine years I was a Council member I made it a priority to review all public comment so I could tell everyone that talked to me that I had read their comments. I often re-read public comment to inform my thoughts as I prepared to speak in support of a final vote on the record.

“Sure, some comments were off topic and many folks don’t communicate so well in a written format and, of course, we had the occasional comment attacking another person.  Nevertheless, I thought it was my job as a Council member to sort these all out and weigh accordingly. Shifting the sifting of public comments to the staff diminishes the roll of a Council member,” he pointed out.

But the Council staff has always pre-read comments before adding them to the members meeting package.

“As deputy director I had to review comments and sort them to the relevant agenda items for member,” said David Witherell, the Council’s current Executive Director. “In the 15 years I served as deputy director, I had to take out one personal comment that was accidentally sent as a public comment, and I knew the author didn’t want it to be public.

“Back then when I started we’d get 20 written comments from the public per meeting, that grew to 50, 100 but in the past few years it’s grown. The April meeting had over 500 comments,” Witherell said.

“In the case of the five comments that had offensive language, our staff went back to each writer to tell them our software doesn’t allow us we to redact the offensive words so we have to pull their comment, but we asked them to resubmit without the bad language. Only one did.”

Witherell added that they now have the ability to mask certain swearwords and will do that going forward. But for hate speech or personal attacks, the comments will be removed and the authors contacted.

The second issue is included in the rest of the new policy.

* Allow staff to sort comments to the appropriate agenda item as practicable (comments that are not associated with an agenda item would go in staff tasking)
* Changes to commenting period
    * Open commenting later, once materials post online
    * Close commenting earlier (Wednesday or Thursday before the start of the meeting) to allow staff to review comments for adherence to the policy
* Do not display comments publicly until after comment deadline closes

“Also, putting up additional time restrictions may further inhibit the public’s opportunity to have their say,” Fields argues.

“The foundational concept in establishing the eight regional management Councils was to give stakeholders an opportunity to comment on fishery allocations and regulations.

“The NPFMC council seems to be making the statement, with the proposed changes in their public comment policy, that  the stake holders in Alaska and Washington and Oregon only get their say if they say it the way we want or, perhaps more nefarious, say what the staff wants us to hear,” Fields said.

Written policies on public comments — an integral part of the success of the Council system — are rare among the country’s eight Councils. The Alaska Council wanted to get a ‘draft’ version of the policy up to help guide participants for the June meeting, Witherell said.

“Consider this a draft that had to be initiated right away,” he explained. “We will be revising this policy based on the experience we get, the IT actions we can take — whether it’s a filter or something more detailed — and feedback, as we do with all policies.

“We really want people to comment, they are exceedingly valuable to the process,” he said. “We’re trying to make the council a welcoming place and maintain a decency and civil discourse. It’s worked very well to date. We’d like to keep it that way.”

The new draft policy will be agenda item B1 at the June meeting, Witherell said. Public comments on that topic will be allowed after the B Reports, as usual. Suggestions on how to approach the issue of non-appropriate public comments in a more appropriate way, stakeholders say, will be a large part of the public comment period at the start of the June meeting.