Former NOAA official pushed policies that benefit his company

By Emily Yehle | 11/10/2015 12:48 PM EST

The head of a company that receives millions of federal dollars to provide at-sea watchdogs for commercial fishermen has a long history of advocating for the policies that now benefit his company. Biologist Andrew Rosenberg, the former Northeast regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, is president of MRAG Americas, a consulting company that draws most of its gross revenue from the agency.

This story was updated at 3:20 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13.

The head of a company that receives millions of dollars from the federal government to provide at-sea watchdogs has a long history of advocating for the policies that now benefit his company.

Andrew Rosenberg wears many hats. He heads up the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He is an unpaid affiliate professor of natural resources and the environment at the University of New Hampshire. He is a biologist with expertise in fisheries, once serving as the Northeast regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.


And he is the president of MRAG Americas, a consulting company that earns most of its gross revenue from NMFS.

Andrew Rosenberg
Andrew Rosenberg, a former NOAA deputy director, is now president of consulting company MRAG Americas. | Photo courtesy of NOAA.

Today, about 64 percent of the company’s gross revenue comes from providing at-sea monitors and observers to NMFS, an agency under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Most of that — 55 percent — comes from being the sole provider of observers for the Northeast Fisheries Observer Program (NEFOP). Those observers collect data on bycatch, or fish and mammals caught unintentionally.

But MRAG has become a sort of boogeyman among New England fishermen who face paying for the separate At-Sea Monitoring Program. MRAG is one of three companies NOAA pays for those monitors, who are put on fishing boats to ensure groundfish fishermen stay within their quotas.

In an industry with long memories, Rosenberg is known for his time at NOAA. Fishermen who remember him as a government official now bristle at the thought of paying his company for watchdogs they find unnecessary.

"It seems strange that somebody who was an assistant administrator for NOAA quits the government and turns around and has a multimillion-dollar contract for observers," David Goethel, the operator of a 44-foot trawler called the Ellen Diane, said in a recent interview. "Fishermen think that it’s wrong."

Rosenberg left NOAA in 2000 and bought into MRAG in 2006. He became president of the company in 2007. In a recent interview, he emphasized the time lapse between the two jobs — and denied that his company benefited from his NOAA contacts.

The contracting process was "very difficult and very rigid," he said. The observer program is also not very profitable, he said, thanks to the costs of training and the unpredictability of how many observers will be used.

"It was a very long, drawn-out process, and in fact that’s caused us a lot of problems," Rosenberg said, citing competition that brought down the contract’s worth. "So if I got a benefit from the inside track, it wasn’t obvious."

To fishermen, observers and monitors are essentially the same once on board: an extra body. With MRAG employing all the observers and some of the monitors, it has, in some ways, become the face of federal regulation.

MRAG also currently has a contract from a private foundation to study the effectiveness of catch shares, and Rosenberg has consulted for the federal government while president of the company.

It’s not unusual for former NOAA employees to later have contracts with the agency, and they are allowed to do so if they follow federal ethics rules. But NOAA does not keep track of that revolving door. The inspector general at the Commerce Department recently began an investigation of the practice at another NOAA branch, the National Weather Service.

Jim Kendall, owner of New Bedford Seafood Consulting, said the connections leave a "bad taste," even if they’re legal.

"Andy’s too damn smart to get caught in anything like this," said Kendall, a former fisherman who served on the New England Fishery Management Council when Rosenberg was at NOAA. "He is really smart, and he’s very careful about what he says and does, usually."

Not a ‘day job’

Rosenberg now works at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He called the position his full-time job, and says he is not involved in day-to-day decisions at MRAG.

"I haven’t ever done it as my day job," he said. "It’s an investment for me, so, yes, I monitor my investment, and I’m listed as the president because I’m a fishery guy, too."

Rosenberg and Graeme Parkes, MRAG’s vice president for fisheries, said the company makes an average of $4.3 million in gross annual revenue to provide observers for NOAA in the Northeast.

But the amount depends on how many observers are placed "successfully." In other words, the company doesn’t get paid if a fisherman cancels a trip that was supposed to have an observer on board.

"We have been struggling, profit-wise, for several years because of the observer program," Rosenberg said.

MRAG’s contract for the At-Sea Monitoring Program is smaller. According to NOAA, MRAG received about $945,000 out of the $2.6 million the agency expended on at-sea monitors in 2014. Two other companies also hold contracts: A.I.S. Inc. received a little more than $1 million, and East West Technical Services LLC received $605,000.

Rosenberg said his company’s At-Sea Monitoring contract has dropped to $800,000 this year. NOAA plans to charge fishermen for the program starting in December, after announcing earlier this year that the agency did not have enough money to pay for it.

Fishermen partly blame Rosenberg for the creation of the At-Sea Monitoring Program, which emerged when NOAA adopted catch shares. The management practice departs from traditional fishing seasons, instead allocating a certain amount of fish to each fisherman.

Today, many laud catch shares for rebuilding dozens of fish stocks. But the system requires NOAA to put more watchdogs on fishing boats; 20 percent of groundfish trips must have a monitor on board.

Rosenberg was not at NOAA when catch shares were implemented. But he was part of a "working group" that pushed Congress and the Obama administration to adopt them.

The group included Clinton-era officials, the future head of NOAA, ocean conservationists — and Rosenberg. In the group’s final report, Rosenberg’s view was summed up in a highlighted quote: "Catch shares can provide real hope for the sustainability of American fisheries and fishing communities."

Rosenberg was cited as a UNH professor and former NOAA official. But the report did not mention that he had recently become president of MRAG, which would go on to win a contract for the extra watchdogs needed for catch shares.

Now, while MRAG provides those at-sea monitors, it also gets paid to analyze whether catch shares are working.

Catch share study

Specifically, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation contracted MRAG for a five-year project called Measuring the Effects of Catch Shares. The project provides data on various "indicators," from biological to economical, on two catch share programs — and one of them is the Northeast program where MRAG has an interest.

In effect, MRAG is studying whether the program works while it also profits from the program’s existence.

But in an email, Parkes said there was no conflict. NOAA "examined this in detail," he said. And although it’s not required, MRAG keeps management of the contracts separate. One management team runs the observer and at-sea monitor programs, while another runs the Moore grant study.

The aim of the study is to use baseline data to "provide an objective and independent measurement of the effects" of two catch share programs, Parkes wrote. But he asserted that the results have no bearing on at-sea monitors.

"MRAG Americas has no material interest in the outcome of the work under the Moore grant," Parkes wrote. "The objectives and outcomes of the grant do not include any evaluation of the NEFOP or ASM programs and the grant does not require MRAG to make recommendations regarding the conduct of the NEFOP or ASM programs. Similarly, MRAG Americas’ performance of services under the NEFOP and ASM contracts has no influence on our measurement of the effects of the groundfish catch share management systems under the Moore grant."

When asked whether MRAG’s various contracts and Rosenberg’s connections raised any concerns, NOAA emphasized that Rosenberg left the agency in 2000.

The agency also said it follows federal regulations and policies in issuing competitively awarded contracts. That includes following clauses for "organizational conflicts of interest," in which contracts have a mitigation plan for any apparent or actual conflict of interest.

Government consulting

Rosenberg has worked for the government while president of MRAG. In 2009, he was appointed "senior adviser" to the White House Council on Environmental Quality to help draft what became the National Ocean Policy.

At the time, Rosenberg was at the University of New Hampshire. The government, he said, reimbursed UNH for the time he spent advising the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force.

A 2009 story in the Gloucester Daily Times quotes a NOAA spokesman as saying Rosenberg was under a "small NOAA contract." But reached via email, former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, who sat on the task force, said she did not appoint Rosenberg.

"I did not have any relevant authority to do so," she wrote. "Whatever arrangements existed (I don’t know any details) were initiated and handled directly by CEQ."

Asked why Rosenberg was under a NOAA contract, Lubchenco said she did not know the specifics and "as far as I recall, I was not involved in those discussions." Since CEQ has a small budget, she said, NOAA might have paid UNH for Rosenberg’s time. But she said such contracts are handled by agency staff and not by the NOAA administrator.

"It is quite common for federal agencies to tap into the expertise of academics by reimbursing their university for a small fraction of their time. I’m guessing that was the arrangement in this case," she wrote, adding that Rosenberg’s expertise in ecosystem-based management gave him insight "directly relevant" to the task force’s work.

But Lubchenco said Rosenberg and any other advisers "must have worked primarily with CEQ staff because [task force] members did not routinely interact with anyone other than CEQ staff."

The policy that came out of the effort calls for marine spatial planning, in which regions create ocean plans to address conflicts and overlaps for shared marine resources. It did not directly relate to New England fishermen, but it solidified the impression that Rosenberg was close to NOAA officials, including Lubchenco.

Company history

MRAG is an offshoot of MRAG Ltd., a London-based consulting firm that also provides fisheries monitoring, among various other contracts. It was founded in 1986 by Sir John Beddington, who was the chief scientific officer for the U.K. government from 2008 to 2013.

Rosenberg worked with Beddington at the University of London and became involved with MRAG, with the university’s permission. In the 1990s, one of his students — who also worked with Beddington — moved to the United States and started MRAG Americas.

Rosenberg eventually left London and dropped his ties to MRAG. In an interview, he said he was not connected to the company again until 2006, when he became co-owner of MRAG Americas with Beddington.

Beddington has faced his own challenges with conflict-of-interest allegations.

In 2010, Nature reported that MRAG came out against the British government’s proposal to ban fishing in a marine reserve. The company — owned by Beddington and his wife — managed the fishing contract for the area. But at the time, Beddington was also the government’s top scientific adviser, raising concerns that he would have influence over the decision.

In the end, the government created the marine protected area in the Chagos Archipelago, banning fishing.

Numerous hats

While Rosenberg’s affiliation with MRAG is well-known among New England fishermen, the scientist does not usually disclose it when speaking to Congress on environmental issues.

Recently, Rosenberg testified in front of the Natural Resources Committee on the Obama administration’s consideration of a marine monument off New England (E&E Daily, Sept. 30). The monument — proposed by environmental groups — is controversial among commercial fishermen who say they won’t get enough input through the process.

On his disclosure form, when asked to list any federal contracts related to the subject matter of the hearing, Rosenberg wrote "none." That may be technically correct: The hearing was not about catch shares or groundfish fishermen.

But it involved NOAA, which held a public hearing on the idea of a marine monument, and the same fishermen who know Rosenberg as head of a company that profits from fishing regulations.

Rosenberg kept his remarks broad, in support of marine protected areas, which he told lawmakers provide a "hedge" against increases in fishing pressure and the impacts of a changing climate.

In his position at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Rosenberg has also publicly supported the near-moratorium on cod (ClimateWire, March 6). A stock assessment last year showed the cod population at historic lows, prompting federal fishery managers to cut quotas to 386 metric tons (Greenwire, Aug. 10).

That quota primarily covers cod caught unintentionally. It makes at-sea monitors more important than ever: Fishermen have an incentive to throw any cod they catch overboard, in fear that they will hit the quota.

Now NOAA wants fishermen to pay for those monitors, using MRAG or the two other companies. More profitable fisheries — such as those in Alaska — pay for such watchdogs without much of a problem. But in New England, groundfish fishermen are struggling to find a replacement for cod.

Kendall said the view from fishermen is that it’s "almost like he’s taking it out of the mouths of the people that’s paying for it."

Rosenberg, in an interview, said MRAG does not weigh in on that debate.

"We’re not advocating that the industry pays," he said. "I have my opinion about that, and that’s that part of the industry I don’t think can pay."