Proposal Could Restrict Public Access to NOAA Fisheries Data

October 17, 2012

NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service is considering a rule which could restrict public access to important data on commercial fishing — and overfishing. This data includes federally required public records paid for by taxpayers.

NOAA first proposed the rule May 23, 2012. NOAA has not yet issued it as final, although the period for public comment closed August 21, 2012.

The data at issue is collected by scientific observers aboard commercial fishing vessels to determine whether stocks are being overfished. The Magnuson-Stevens Act allows the government to withhold information such as company name and fishing location as "confidential."

The watchdog group OMB Watch criticized the proposed rule's handling of such confidential information:

"Instead of accessing the data directly from the government, the public might have to go through private fishing companies to access information about their fishing and its impact on the ecosystem," OMB Watch wrote. "That is, the rule could give fishing permit holders control over the statistics and information collected and reported about them, even though the information is collected by third-party observers paid by the federal government. This change creates a clear conflict of interest since fishing permit holders have a financial stake in the fishery market. Even if only a minority of fishermen withholds information, it could compromise key data for wildlife management."