What happened to $13 million in federal funds given to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for use as whistleblower incentives? That’s the question raised in an exposé published recently in Earth Island Journal.
The story, written by environmentalist Richard Schiffman, focuses on the vaquita, the smallest cetacean in the world, whose numbers have plummeted by half in just the last six years. No more than 15 of the little dolphin-like creatures now remain in the northern Gulf of California, their exclusive home range, due to illegal fishing. Scientists believe that the vaquita will be extinct within a year or two because illegal fishing and poaching are going unchecked. An effective FWS whistleblower program could have prevented this crisis if only the agency had used its funding appropriately, the report alleges.
According to Mr. Schiffman, even after receiving $13 million in taxpayer funds to be used as payouts to whistleblowers, the FWS has no “proactive whistleblower program” to halt the indiscriminate slaughter of critically endangered sea creatures that drown in gillnets as unintended bycatch. Without valuable incentives to encourage witnesses to speak up, environmental crimes go unreported.
“It’s heartbreaking work,” Carolina Castro, media coordinator for the environmental action group Sea Shephard, said of the group’s efforts to stop illegal fishing in the Gulf of California.
Mr. Schiffman writes, “Occasionally the patrol team hauls in a dead vaquita, as well as ‘nets full of whales, dolphins, great white sharks, hammerhead sharks, sea turtles.’ Very rarely, they rescue a sea creature that’s still alive … but never any vaquitas, which drown quickly when caught in nets: As Castro points out.”
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the National Whistleblower Center, the FWS admitted it can’t account for most of the millions of dollars that Congress designated for FWS whistleblower incentives. In fact, the agency can only account for $13,704 of funds it received for whistleblowers from 2003 to 2016.
Whistleblowers expose the truth
Whistleblowers can play a highly effective role in stopping illegal and unethical activities. Financial awards are offered in exchange for information that can be used to prosecute illegal fishermen and poachers, such as those who caused the near-extinction of the vaquita. The fishermen use nets designed to entangle the totoaba, an endangered giant sea bass found only in the central and northern portions of the Gulf of California. Totoaba bladders are coveted by the Chinese for fertility and general health purposes, and the demand for them there continues to grow. Whistleblowers in the Gulf and across routes where totoaba are smuggled through the U.S. to China could have been instrumental in breaking up the illegal “totoaba cartel.”
Stephen Kohn, the executive director of the National Whistleblower Center, told Mr. Schiffman that “There is now a growing consensus that incentivizing whistleblowers is a key to enforcing wildlife trafficking laws,” especially in light of the success whistleblowers have had in prosecutions led by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Internal Revenue Service, and other federal agencies.
The tragedy of these failures can’t be overstated, as Mr. Schiffman’s story indicates. The FWS is covered by federal whistleblower laws that authorize it to offer payments in exchange for whistleblower tips and information that could be used to prosecute wildlife criminals. For years, the FWS has been receiving government funding to make such payments, but Mr. Kohn and his associates found that the agency wasn’t paying any informants.
“This then is a story of missed opportunities — and loss,” Mr. Schiffman writes. “Many law enforcement officers and conservationists have been struggling, against the odds and sometimes at great personal risk, to save countless endangered creatures, including the vaquita. The failure to protect the vaquita points to the U.S. government’s larger failure to take advantage of perhaps the most powerful tool in the fight against wildlife crime: paying people to provide agents with information.”