NOAA Officials May Be Deleting Their G-Chats

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Chris White Tech Reporter
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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) might illegally be destroying records of a recent meeting discussing new regulations against the fishing industry, according to a conservative legal group in Washington, D.C.

Cause of Action Institute (CoA) filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the NOAA to obtain communications during a New England Fishery Management Council meeting hashing out new rules foisted upon the country’s fishing industry. The group believes the agency is deleting Skype and Google Chat conversations that took place during the April meeting.

The NOAA General Counsel considers communications through Google Chat to be off the record and will not be recorded anyway, according to a 2012 handbook guide CoA obtained. CoA disputed the agency’s claim, and pointed to provisions within the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

The NARA, which maintains government records, states that any communications created on NOAA’s Gmail interface qualify under the Federal Records Act. CoA Institute requested e-mails, instant messaging, Google chat messages, text messages, and any Skype messages NOAA employees sent during the April 18–20, 2017 NEFMC meetings.

“NOAA appears to have created an internal messaging platform to hide records from public disclosure,” CoA Institute Vice President Julie Smith said in a press statement Thursday. “Any directive to make certain communications be considered ‘off-the-record’ clearly violates transparency laws.  Americans have a right to know how decisions are made that could jeopardize their livelihoods.”

The group argues that the council discussed at the April meeting the Omnibus Amendment, which would, according to CoA Institute’s FOIA request, “compel fishermen to pay for supplemental at-sea monitoring services, which would have a disastrous effect on America’s fishing industry.”

CoA Institute has represented the fishing industry in the past. The group filed a lawsuit in 2016 against the NOAA claiming the agency’s new rule requiring fishermen to pay the costs of on-board, at-sea monitors to ensure they are complying with regulations on the high seas – in effect, the rule made fishermen pay for on board babysitters. A district court dismissed the lawsuit.

“While we respect the District Court and its decision, it appears that decision is contrary to the law and facts,” Alfred Lechner, President and CEO of Cause of Action Institute, said last February about the court’s decision. “In the end, the federal government is overextending its regulatory power and is destroying an industry. We intend to study the decision and consider further action.”

The U.S. government has financed the cost of at-sea monitors in the past — approximately $710 per day. The Obama administration passed the cost onto fishermen in 2015, claiming it could no longer fund the project. The government later revised its position, saying it could cover 85 percent of expenses.

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