Politics

Federal Agency Tells Employees 'No Reference To Anything COVID Related'

Crew members shovel pollock onboard a trawler on the Bering Sea. The fishing industry has been hit by COVID-19, but the federal agency that manages it has banned mention of the pandemic without preapproval.
Crew members shovel pollock onboard a trawler on the Bering Sea. The fishing industry has been hit by COVID-19, but the federal agency that manages it has banned mention of the pandemic without preapproval.
Nat 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, says it applies to the agency's formal rules and management announcements.

The four-page memo says 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.

Spokesman John Ewald did not explain why the agency wants to avoid mentioning the pandemic. In a statement, he said the memo is meant to "ensure timely and consistent rulemakings during COVID-19," and he noted the agency has been posting pandemic-related information on its website.

The internal memo is "mystifying," says Linda Behnken, who heads the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association. She finds the rationale hard to explain, "other than, possibly, this administration is ready to move on and doesn't really want to be focused on the pandemic anymore."

It's not clear whether other agencies are also banning pandemic-related language. But President Trump has consistently played down the threat from the coronavirus and suggested early on that it will "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.

In Alaska, an announcement that National Marine Fisheries Service is waiving requirements that federal monitors be on board some vessels to collect data and ensure compliance did mention the COVID-19 pandemic. But those words are not used in a different, temporary rule that was formally announced in the Federal Register this week. It aims to reduce the risk of fishing crews spreading COVID-19, but it only refers generally to "government mandates and travel restrictions."

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