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Information Demanded|on U.S. Fishery Council

WASHINGTON (CN) — A nonprofit backed by Koch brothers money sued the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Tuesday for information on how it selects members of the New England Fishery Management Council, which regulates fishing off the coasts of five states.

"There is danger for politicization in how members are actually chosen," the Cause of Action Institute says in its federal complaint against the NOAA, a branch of the Department of Commerce.

The Cause of Action Institute describes itself in the lawsuit as "a nonprofit strategic oversight group committed to ensuring that government decision-making is open, honest, and fair." It generally opposes government regulation, particularly in the energy industry.

The Los Angeles Times described it last year as "a small group of lawyers funded by the Koch network." Its then-director Daniel Epstein formerly worked as an attorney for the Charles Koch Foundation, and by 2013 most of Cause of Action's funding came from the Donors Trust, "a nonprofit group through which the Kochs and their allies distribute tens of millions of dollars without needing to disclose the source of the funds," the Times reported in its Feb. 7, 2015 article.

In its July 13 FOIA request, Cause of Action sought information on how the Secretary of Commerce and NOAA select members in the New England Fishery Management Council, which regulates fishing off the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.

"The records at issue in this case, which include records of communication between high-ranking agency officials, will permit the public to understand how the most recent round of membership selection for the NEFMC was handled, and whether that process was at all tinged by political considerations or other untoward government action," the complaint states.

Cause of Action claims that NOAA has never disclosed information about how it selects members of the eight regional regulatory councils operating under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and that the membership might not accurately represent the fishing industry.

The complaint cites environmental studies professor Thomas A. Okey of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, who suggested in a 2003 paper that representation in the industry is "generally skewed towards the larger corporate interests that support larger sized vessels, whereas the small-scale vessel fleets that are the traditional core of coastal communities (and more likely to have conservation interests) are often less represented."

Cause of Action says the secretary of commerce and National Marine Fisheries Service-supervised councils wield "significant independent power."

"They propose Fishery Management Plans, amendments, and framework adjustments; they conduct hearings; and they determine annual catch limits. The FMCs even have the ability to constrain the Secretary of Commerce," the complaint states, abbreviating Fishery Management Council.

Cause of Action says the NOAA released documents on Aug. 30, but redacted material from three of the 19 documents, as "nonresponsive." It appealed the redactions in September, but has not received a final response.

Attorneys for Cause of Action Institute declined comment, as did the NOAA.

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