By Richard Gaines
---- — The University of Massachusetts has replaced the internationally renowned marine scientist Brian Rothschild as co-director of the Massachusetts Fisheries Institute, a partnership of the university and state government which produced the research instrumental in convincing the federal government in September to acknowledge the Northeast groundfishery had collapsed into economic disaster.
A $100 million disaster relief package was affixed last week to a $60 billion bill in the lame-duck session keyed to restoration of damage from Hurricane Sandy in October.
The decision to remove Rothschild from the co-directorship of the institute he helped found 10 years ago was signaled in a press release dated Dec. 11. It featured the announcement of a decision to suspend the operations of a neurotoxin lab; only secondarily did the release describe a restructuring of the Marine Fisheries Institute and then never mentioned Rothschild by name, but noted that Steve Lorhenz, dean of the School or Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, had become co-director of the institute.
The decision to remove Rothschild from the institute was made by Marcie Williams, the vice president for academic affairs, based on a review of MFI by Associate Vice President Robert Gamache, and was “agreed to” by Divina Grossman, chancellor of UMass-Dartmouth, John Hoey, Grossman’s chief of staff, explained in a telephone interview.
Calling Rothschild one of “the greatest marine scientists of all time,” Hoey said the switch was made to give the position of co-director the institutional heft of a dean and upgrade fund-raising.
“Everything we do is designed to make SMAST as competitive as possible for external funding,” Hoey said.
Rothschild, who founded SMAST and served as its first dean, is known in many circles as a master fund-raiser.
But in the four years of the Obama presidency, fishermen rose in spontaneous resistance to NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco and her policies, perceived widely as hostile to small scale fishermen, notably and disastrously the transformation of the Northeast groundfishery into a commodity market trading in catch shares. As the depth of the schism grew, Rothschild emerged as the hero to fishermen and an intellectual counterweight to Lubchenco, whose rise to power was propelled by hundreds of millions in grants from the past generation’s industrial foundations.
Hoey said a reason for Rothschild’s removal as co-director of MFI was the need of the institute to attract financial support from “private institutions, government agencies and industry and private grant providers.”
A tenured professor, Rothschild said he had “no comment for now” about his removal from MFI. He will remain at UMass-Dartmouth at his current salary of $216,570 and will be allowed to carry on his own research.
But since the story was first reported in the Standard-Times of New Bedford last Friday, commentary from industry has been angry and fiercely defensive of Rothschild in his leadership post. Richard Grachek, who fishes out of Mystic, Conn., described the decision to dump Rothschild as “Kafkaesque.”
In a statement Tuesday, the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region’s largest industry group, said that “not having (Rothschild) involved in the process at the level in which he is today would be a serious loss for all stakeholders.”
U.S. Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Barney Frank had each urged President Obama to appoint Rothschild to head NOAA or the National Marine Fisheries Service, but his candidacy was undercut by the Environmental Defense Fund, where Lubchenco had served as a board vice chairwoman before her appointment to head NOAA in 2009. Lubchenco last week announced her resignation at the end of February.
EDF is a corporate partner of Wal-Mart, whose Walton Foundation was the primary funder of the policy paper, “Oceans of Abundance.” That piece was co-written by Lubchenco in 2008 and warned that, without transforming the nation’s fisheries into investor-ready catch share systems, irresponsible fishing would soon empty the oceans, allowing jellyfish to take over.
Journalist and fisheries consultant Nils Stolpe, who has tracked more than $500 million invested by industrial foundations — notably the Pew Charitable Trust founded with Sun Oil billions, Intel and Hewlett Packard along with Wal-Mart — in fisheries science, said Tuesday that Rothschild’s creations, SMAST and the MFI, were “not unique in the quality and integrity of their output,” but would play a unique role challenging and, at pivotal moments, refuting NOAA science.
Rothschild and his colleague Kevin Stokesbury were at the center of SMAST research using underwater cameras to disprove NOAA science contending scallops were badly overfished.
In April 2010, just before the onset of the catch share commodity trading system for groundfish, he testified before a House Natural Resources subcommittee that while the approach can reduce the wasteful imbalance between capital and the amount of fish caught, “they also can change the social structure of the industry, reduce boats, reduce jobs, negatively affect shoreside businesses (while also) destroying the cultural fabric of fishing communities.”
It was a message that did not endear him to Lubchenco or her allied foundations and green groups. Making a command performance at the behest of Sen. Kerry, Lubchenco walked out of a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in October 2011 before Rothschild was called to the microphone at the Massachusetts State House.
Former New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang called Rothschild a “pre-eminent scientist” with a global following as well as a “governmental servant and cooperative partner whose services are more needed now with NOAA’s credibility at a nadir.
“I have been asked many times how we were able to build a positive, collaborative, fisheries research program (at SMAST) and a key factor has been leadership from the MFI,” Stokesbury said in a letter to the Standard-Times made available to the Times. “I fail to see how increased bureaucracy will improve on this productivity.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.