Federal fisheries agency to staff: Keep “COVID-19” and “pandemic” out of documents

Crew members shovel pollock on the deck of a Bering Sea trawler last year. (Nathaniel Herz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)
Crew members shovel pollock on the deck of a Bering Sea trawler last year. (Nathaniel Herz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

A federal fisheries management agency has barred some of its employees from making formal references to the COVID-19 pandemic without preapproval from leadership, according to an internal agency document.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the Commerce Department, manages federal fish stocks in partnership with appointed regional councils. Fishing crews and seafood businesses have been asking the agency to relax regulations as the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated their operations. There have also been outbreaks among industry workers.

The National Marine Fisheries Service’s guidance document, dated June 22, applies to the agency’s formal rules and management announcements. According to the document any reference to COVID-19 or the pandemic in publicly available documents must be approved by Sam Rauch, an attorney who’s NMFS’ Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs.

The four-page memo outlines the agency’s “preferred approach” is making “no reference to anything COVID related,” and it offers preapproved replacement phrases such as “in these extraordinary times.”

“This option assumes that the action can be supported by using facts, impacts, etc., that we would also use under normal circumstances,” the memo says. “No reference to any stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions, or anything COVID related is needed.”

The memo outlines a second option to be used on a “limited basis” when requests or comments require “some reference to the current situation.” It offers preapproved phrases such as “due to existing health mandates and travel restrictions,” though it says even minor changes require agency review.

A final option allows direct mention of COVID-19 or the pandemic on an “extremely limited basis” with leadership approval.

In a statement, National Marine Fisheries Service spokesman John Ewald said the memo is meant to “ensure timely and consistent rulemakings during COVID-19,” and he wrote the agency has been posting pandemic-related information on its website. He did not explain why the agency prefers to avoid mention of the pandemic.

One Alaska fisherman, Linda Behnken, said she finds the document “mystifying,” given how the agency has taken a number of actions in direct response to the pandemic. In her state, for example, it has waived requirements that federal monitors be on board some vessels to collect data and ensure compliance with regulations.

That announcement does mention the COVID-19 pandemic. But those words are omitted from a different, temporary rule that was formally announced in the Federal Register last week, in direct response to the disease.

The rule was adopted after a recommendation by the North Pacific Management Council, and it loosens limits on transfers of fisherman-owned harvest quota.

It’s aimed at reducing the risk of fishermen and crew spreading COVID-19 by traveling, according to testimony at the council meeting where the rule was discussed, and comments submitted beforehand. But the rule only refers to “government mandates and travel restrictions,” not the pandemic itself or COVID-19.

“Directions to not directly mention COVID-19, or the pandemic, in creating the rationale for those actions is hard to explain,” said Behnken, who runs a group of small-boat operators called the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. “Other than, possibly, this administration is ready to move on and doesn’t really want to be focused on the pandemic any more.”

President Donald Trump has consistently played down the threat from the coronavirus, suggesting early on in the pandemic that it would “disappear.” He recently said he wants less testing for the coronavirus and has urged cities and states to open up despite a dramatic rise in the number of cases.

Mark Begich, a Democratic former U.S. senator from Alaska, said he was “shocked” by the memo, adding that he thinks it’s consistent with Trump administration efforts to downplay the impact of climate change by avoiding use of the words. Begich, who once chaired the Senate subcommittee with oversight of the National Marine Fisheries Service said minimizing the effects of the pandemic confuses the public and amounts to “denial.”

“Just saying it doesn’t exist does not mean that it’s not happening,” he said. “This is just putting people at risk, and not being honest and transparent about the situation we face in this country — which is getting more severe because of the lack of acknowledgement.”

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