My short tour as head of the Science Section at the American Embassy in Rome was not very pleasant.
My previous tour as Science Counselor at the embassy in Warsaw was under a cloud because Washington under the Gingrich Republican Congress had cut off funding for science cooperation that was supposed to go on for several more years. An unexpected call from Washington offered me the job in Rome.
When I arrived in Rome, the State Department was being sued by several environmental groups upset at how the Italians were fishing for swordfish. The United Nations had put a limit on how long Italian driftnets could be, and these groups sued the State Department to force it to enforce the UN mandate. The Justice Department argued the case that the State Department did not need court oversight, but lost. At the time I was not clear what leverage the environmental groups had on the State Department, but as this court decision shows, the leverage was Italian exports to the US. The environmental groups would force the Commerce Department to withdraw its certification of Italian exports of fish to the US unless Italy was in compliance with the UN resolution. As a result, a Federal judge ended up in charge of US fishery policy in Italy.
Who really ended up in charge of American fishery policy toward Italy was Greenpeace Italy. The environmental groups could decide whether any US agreement with Italy on driftnets warranted allowing the Commerce Department decision to stand. Any US proposal would be run by the US environmental groups; they would then ask Greenpeace Italy for its recommendation before replying to the court. The Greenpeace Italy swordfish staff was basically one person who spent full time monitoring swordfish fishing boat, and who always smelled strongly of fish when we met with him. The court decision cites Greenpeace reports in several places in its decision.
We had a huge meeting in Rome with many representatives of interested parties in the US and Italy. They came to a resolution, negotiated mainly by my assistant, who had handled fishery matters during a previous tour in Venezuela, and a staff assistant to the Italian director of the fishery office of the Italian Agriculture Ministry. Under the agreement, the Italian Agriculture Ministry agreed to toughen up its enforcement practices. A few months later, however, the Agriculture Minister requested a meeting with the Ambassador on the matter. He said that because his ministry’s enforcement officers had stepped up their efforts against illegal driftnet use, the Italian fishermen in Sicily, where most of them were located, had taken out hit contracts with the Mafia on the ministry’s enforcement personnel. The Minister felt that some of his employees were in genuine danger and requested that the agreement be watered down somewhat. Meanwhile, other fishermen were demonstrating outside the Agriculture Ministry in downtown Rome and creating huge traffic jams. My assistant who had negotiated the agreement was sick, and I had to go with the Ambassador to meet with the Minister. The Ambassador was very upset when I told him that he did not have much negotiating room because any change would have to be approved by a federal judge, which meant essentially that it would have to be approved by Greenpeace Italy. As a result, my last full day on the job in the Foreign Service was spent on the telephone negotiating some “happy-to-glad” changes in the language of the agreement and getting preliminary approval from Washington .
I had forgotten the terms of the agreement, but they were summarized in the court opinion as:
First, Italy announced its intention to submit a voluntary rationalization and conversion plan to provide for the cancellation of all driftnet fishing licenses, accompanied by a surrender of the driftnets, between 1997 and 1999.
Second, Italy committed to introduce a ban on the use of Sardinian ports by driftnet vessels from other ports. The Sardinian port ban subsequently passed.
Third, Italy announced its intention to pass a law with an escalation of sanctions for fishing with illegal driftnets.
This appears to be one of the decisions that affected our office’s work; however, the date of the decision is well after I had already retired from the Foreign Service.
A 2008 study of the driftnet problem showed that not much had changed over the 10 years following my retirement.