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Originally published in Fly Fishing in Saltwaters Magazine

 

SEA CHANGE AT NOAA

President Obama’s pick to head NOAA could mean big changes in the way we manage fisheries

 

On Dec 19th, Present Obama announced the appointment of Dr. Jane Lubchenco to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  This is big, big news for a number of reasons. 

 

 NOAA oversees a wide range of operations, including how the United States deals with climate change as well as analyzing and monitoring weather conditions.  Also included under the NOAA umbrella is the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which has jurisdiction over marine and anadromous fisheries.  If approved by congress, Dr. Lubchenco will be the most important fishery management official in the nation.

 

However, that’s not the big news.  What is noteworthy about Dr. Lubchenco’s appointment is that she is not only an internationally known and widely respected marine biologist, and the first expert in communicating marine science in the agency's 38-year history, she is an outspoken conservationist who has focused much of her research on protecting ocean resources.   

 

Historically, NMFS has been broadly criticized for its mismanagement of fishery resources.   New England’s ground-fishery has essentially collapsed and may never recover, many species of West Coast rockfish have been severely overfished and megafauna such as bluefin tuna as well as other top ocean predators have been estimated to be at just 10% of their historical numbers.  These are but a few examples of what has taken place under NMFS’s watch during the last two decades. 

 

Lubchenco, who has been widely critical of the agencies failure to curb overfishing could very well steer NOAA in a New Direction.

 

An Extraordinary Resume

 

In her day job, Dr. Lubchenco is a professor of marine biology at Oregon State University and an expert on coastal environments.  Her research has added substantially to the knowledge and understanding of ocean ecosystems.   She is one of the "most highly cited" ecologists in the world and is known among marine scientists for her work on biodiversity and sustainability.

 

She is the recipient of more awards than I’m able to list here and she holds numerous degrees.  She has been president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the International Council for Science and was on the Pew Oceans Commission and the Joint Oceans Commission Initiative.  She is no stranger to Capitol Hill either as she served on National Science Board under President Clinton, which advises the president and Congress.  

 

Science First

 

Although her contributions to scientific knowledge are significant, what is perhaps most noteworthy of Dr. Lubchenco is that she has historically stressed the importance of science in informing and ultimately dictating policy. 

 

This is quite significant because in large-part, the failures of fishery management have been the result of politics trumping marine science.   Despite overwhelming evidence of overfishing and depleted fisheries, coastal politicians as well as Regional Fishery Management Councils have been able to get around painful but needed restraints on the fishing industry, to benefit short term economic interests.   Allowing politics to trump good science has created catastrophic problems for fisheries and the communities that depend on them. 

 

The good and the bad

 

Much of Lubchenco’s work has focused on the benefits of an integrated, ecosystem-based framework for fisheries management.  While very little progress has been made on ecosystem-based management to date, under Lubchenco’s watch such an approach will likely become integral to NMFS's conservation efforts. 

 

Lubchenco has also warned that greenhouse gases are turning the ocean more acid.  The acidification of oceans may well be the biggest threat to marine life because so many different plants and animals that play key roles in ecosystems will likely be affected.  We can bet that this will be a big focus under Lubchenco’s realm. 

 

She has also shown great concern for “upstream” factors effecting fisheries.  “The evidence suggests that if the spigot of nutrients can be turned off, coastal systems can recover. Doing it can be accomplished by using fertilizers more efficiently, preventing human and animal sewage from entering rivers, and replanting vegetation (along riverbanks) to absorb excess nutrients.” She told the Christian Science Monitor.

 

Lubchenco seems to be in favor of using property rights to restore depleted fisheries, which I wrote about in the March/April 2008 column.  Such an approach essentially negates the “Tragedy of the Commons” and rewards fishermen for being good conservationists. 

 

Lastly, Lubchenco is likely to fight for increased funding for NMFS.  In 1995, she warned that a proposed massive congressional cut in nondefense science funding "has very profound implications for the future of the country." She told the Oregonian newspaper, "The consequences are likely to be a massive dismantling of a research system that has served us very, very well."

 

Yet, Lubchenco’s appointment has made commercial and recreational fishing interests anxious.  She has spent years making the case for marine reserves and marine sanctuaries as a representative of the Pew Oceans Commission, and fisherman are suspicious that such reserves will close off important fishing grounds.

 

Indeed, Lubchenco’s keenness for no-take marine reserves is a cause for concern, yet with the input from strong recreational fishing advocacy and conservation groups like the American Sportfishing Association and the Coastal Conservation Association, I’m hopeful that recreational fishing which does not damage bottom habitat or cause adverse impacts to troubled fisheries will still be allowed in proposed areas. 

 

I’m also hopeful that anglers will not be excluded from any MPA decision-making process.   I am encouraged by President Obama’s statement in Sport  Fishing regarding this: “The decision to establish marine reserves should be made as a result of a transparent, science-based process and be the least intrusive possible to get the job done. Such a process should include outreach to the sport-fishing community to explain both the scientific basis for the action and the expected conservation benefits to future fishing generations if it is to gain the community’s active support.”

 

Conclusion

 

“The truth is that promoting science isn't just about providing resources-it's about protecting free and open inquiry," President Obama said about his appointments of Lubchenco and other scientists to lead agencies. "It's about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It's about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it's inconvenient -especially when it's inconvenient. “ 

 

Such a statement has profound implications for fisheries management and Lubchenco’s appointment marks a definitive shift for NOAA.   By selecting someone who is both a respected scientist and an active player in national policy discussions, the appointment indicates that science will indeed have a much larger role policy than it has historically had.   

 

It remains to be seen whether the Senate will confirm Lubchenko as NOAA Administrator but to date, little opposition has surfaced.