I spent yesterday participating at the NOAA Law Enforcement Summit in Washington DC along with 60 or 70 other stakeholders and a rare thing happened, at least for this city: Despite having strongly differing views about NOAA's past law enforcement record and how the agency should move forward in remedying problems from the past, there was no shouting, no name calling , no fist shaking, no angry diatribes. Instead, there was politeness, constructive comments and interesting and creative ideas on improving law enforcement transparency, consistency and communications. In polarized Washington DC ? How the heck did that happen?
For one thing, the summit was organized and well run by professional facilitators with the participants assigned to small working groups for focused discussions. The people assigned to my table were an amazing mix of people with extremely different backgrounds with significantly differing views: a representative of the charter boat industry, the head of a state fishery agency, a University of Maryland professor who had conducted exhaustive research on NOAA law enforcement activities, a New England seafood marketer, a NOAA law enforcement agent, a representative of the commercial fishing industry, and myself representing the Environmental Defense Fund.
At least one of our table participants stated firmly at the beginning that he was staunchly anti-law enforcement or something to that effect and my initial internal reaction was "oh boy, here goes the bar fight" but then the unexpected thing happened. A really fascinating conversation began unfolding with everyone being very respectful of each others opinions and folks trying real hard to come up with constructive ideas for helping NOAA enhance the effectiveness of its law enforcement program.
The professor from Maryland turned out to be a virtual fountain of fascinating statistics and past analyses of NOAA law enforcement activities and the representatives at the table from the Pacific Northwest and Alaska shared insights on how they had resolved many of the issues years ago that are now starting to surface in the South Atlantic. But perhaps the conversation that transfixed me the most was the dialogue which unfolded between the NOAA law enforcement agent and the participant who had initially stated that he was strongly anti-enforcement. It was respectful, constructive and enlightening.
By the time the summit ended, the comment that I heard from virtually everyone in our group was that it had been a "really good group of people" at our table and that people had really enjoyed the conversation and the ideas that we had ultimately developed. Everyone exchanged business cards and I truly expect to touch base with many if not most of these people again.
This was the second facilitated summit-like meeting sponsored by NOAA that I have attended in the last three months (the other one involved recreational fishing) and in each case potentially explosive, emotion charged issues were handled diplomatically and effectively, creating an atmosphere that facilitated the exchange of ideas with civility and respect. Boy, have we been missing those elements recently in the political gladiator wars in this city.
The hard work on improving and enhancing NOAA law enforcement has just begun and a one day summit is not going to provide all the answers or solutions that will be needed. Far from it. But having said that, Dr. Jane Lubchenco and Eric Schwaab have now twice organized meetings where people with strongly held (and often differing) opinions could discuss their differences in a constructive atmosphere without insulting the motives or the values of the person seated next to them. I generally hate day long meetings but I would willingly come back for a third NOAA summit if it would allow me to work on problem solving again with as interesting and insightful people as the ones sitting around my table.