National Fisherman

While NOAA fiddles

This should be a time of promise for the U.S. fishing industry.

Although we certainly have a number of real concerns — Pacific salmon and Atlantic tuna come quickly to mind, albeit for different reasons, a number of stars seem to be in alignment.

In the first place, we have a new administration in Washington. A new administration means new energy, new people trying new ideas. I am not so jaded (though I'm getting there!) that I don't feel optimistic about that, whether the propagators of the new order are Democrats or Republicans.

We have a new director at NOAA in the person of Jane Lubchenco, whose background as an environmental scientist and marine ecologist would seem to suggest that despite NOAA's broad responsibilities, U.S. fisheries will not suffer laissez faire administration or be regarded as a supplement to production from Third World fish farms.

Last but not least, we have the publication of "Rebuilding Global Fisheries," by Boris Worm, Ray Hilborn and others, in the July 31 edition of Science (and which we cover this month, p. 20).

I think most of us are in tune with the message of Hilborn and Worm, which is that fish stocks can be — and are being — rebuilt, and that there are economic as well as ecosystem benefits to be derived from harvesting below the exploitation rate that produces maximum sustainable yield.

However, for most of the public, who hear only of depleted stocks, industrial trawlers and nets the size of 747s, this is eye-opening news.

But the bright light of promise is dimming as NOAA fiddles and diddles over the appointment of a new director for NMFS (also referred to, in the logic of the bureaucracy, as assistant administrator, or AA).

I started down this road last month, but since then, Arne Fuglvog, a Petersburg, Alaska, fisherman and a top candidate for the AA post, has withdrawn from consideration.

Fuglvog, a 2003 National Fisherman Highliner now working for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on fisheries affairs, and who had experience on the North Pacific council, would have been an excellent choice, but grew tired of waiting around and decided to focus on his work for Murkowski and the state of Alaska.

"The process has taken almost 6 months with no end in sight," he told me in an e-mail.

Another excellent candidate, Brian Rothschild, a scientist at the University of Massachusetts School for Marine Science and Technology, languishes, and told the Gloucester (Mass.) Daily Times he'd had no "recent contact" with NOAA about the position.

Justin Kenney, NOAA's director of communications, says all is proceeding according to plan. "There is nothing more to it than it is just a deliberative process to interview and recruit the best possible candidate we can find."

Kenney says industry expectations were ramped up by the uncharacteristically swift appointment of Lubchenco, and that President George W. Bush had been in office for a year when Bill Hogarth was named to run NMFS.

However, that soft-pedals the fact that James Balsiger had been acting director for almost a year when the Obama administration came to town.

Balsiger could run the agency, but unless and until they take the "acting" out of his title, his job is to keep the seat warm for the next guy (or gal).

In any case, for a year and a half — almost half a presidential term — the agency has wallowed in the trough of inertia, underway without way.

What's going on is unclear. For months we thought we had two front runners for the job. Fuglvog had political, NGO and industry support. Rothschild has industry and political support, and NGOs have no reason to line up in opposition to him. Either one of these guys would bring tremendous street cred to an agency sorely in need of it.

It's nice to think that Lubchenco is seeking the perfect candidate — except, of course, that there isn't one. Meanwhile, NMFS has had its head handed to it in federal courts over New England groundfish and Pacific salmon, and it has hardly burnished its image with its inquisition in Gloucester, Mass.

Hogarth, now ensconced on campus in the steamy environs of south Florida, must be shaking his head. If there was one thing he believed NMFS needed to do, it was stay out of court.

Now the only news NMFS is making is in court.

Hogarth also had a vision of fishermen as businessmen presiding over reasonably ordered enterprises.

I had my disagreements with Hogarth, particularly on the subject of aquaculture in the U.S. EEZ, but give credit where credit is due: He understood that leading NMFS isn't merely about ending overfishing, it's about implementing a vision of how the U.S. fishing industry ought to look.

Today the agency has no vision beyond catch shares, and no one to implement it if it did.

It has no excuses, either.

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