BOSTON — U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke told New England fishing representatives Monday that he is committed to ending overzealous or abusive enforcement of fishing rules and to helping the industry find ways to become more efficient and profitable.

While stopping short of offering fishermen an apology for questionable penalties identified in a recent report as having been assessed by investigators of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Locke said fair and effective enforcement is critical to the management of the nation’s fisheries.

“The problems identified by the inspector general are simply unacceptable, and they were allowed to persist for too long,” said Locke, whose department oversees NOAA. “Some of those complaints actually dated back to 2001.”

He vowed: “Those problems will end on my watch.”

Locke, who was appointed by President Obama and sworn into office in March 2009, spoke after a closed-door meeting with fishermen from Massachusetts. He also met Monday with officials and fishing industry representatives in Portland.

Maine fishermen have not reported the level of problems reported in Massachusetts, but the enforcement issues are still of concern, said U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who attended the meeting with Locke in Portland.

“Fishermen have to abide by a lot of laws, and they’re getting more confusing all the time,” she said. “When there’s a sense out there that we have an enforcement department that doesn’t treat them fairly, it makes all of them suspicious about the laws whether they’ve had the individual experience or not.”

Richard Canastra, co-owner of New Bedford, Mass.-based Whaling City Seafood Display Auction, called the meeting with Locke “refreshing” after he said the industry’s earlier attempts to communicate its concerns to NOAA fell on “deaf ears.”

“We’re not looking for an apology, we’re just looking for action,” Canastra said.

The meeting came several days after Locke appointed a special master to examine 19 questionable penalties against fishermen in the Northeast that were identified by his office’s inspector general, Todd Zinser.

Zinser detailed a strategy by enforcers to impose excessive fines as a tool to prod fishermen into settling their cases rather than going before a judge.

The penalties were imposed for regulations governing such things as where fishermen could fish and how much they could catch.

Locke announced Monday that an online hotline is being created to field complaints from the industry about unfair or overzealous law enforcement. He said those complaints can be lodged anonymously.

The secretary also said that $3 million in federal grants is being made available in Massachusetts to help fishermen develop new equipment to enable them to be more efficient and profitable, and that the industry will be given more input into the scientific research that determines catch limits aimed at preserving fish stocks.

Fishermen have frequently complained that the guidelines are arbitrary and have forced many to quit fishing because they can no longer make a living.