By Richard Gaines
Two fishermen were hanged in effigy at a protest by a crowd of 300 outside the regional office of the federal fisheries service last October in Gloucester.
The mannequins clad in foul weather gear weren't the object of the protesters' anger. The target was the black-hooded figure presiding over the hanging.
That figure represented Jane Lubchenco, the scientist and environmental activist who runs the fisheries service as administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The government lynching was an apt depiction of the fishermen's view of her impact.
"Not so far off from the truth, eh?" said Amanda Odlin, lead organizer of the demonstration, who owns a small-boat fishing business with her husband in Maine.
It wasn't supposed to have come to this — a chasm of mistrust as wide as Georges Bank separating the regulators from the regulated in the commercial fishing industry.
At her Senate confirmation hearing in March 2009, Lubchenco was hailed as a "bionic woman of good science." Her many awards included a MacArthur "genius" grant.
Lubchenco agreed with senators that a "seriously dysfunctional relationship" had poisoned discussions between fishing regulators and fishermen.
The time had come, she said, to create "a new climate of trust."
Seven months later, fishermen mannequins dangled off the back of a flatbed truck in Gloucester under a hand-lettered sign that read: "Betrayed by Government."
Activists take over
Jane Lubchenco came to Washington with an agenda that included a radical restructuring of the fishing industry, called catch shares.
It's a fisheries management plan that gives an individual fisherman or fishing cooperative a share of the total allowable catch of a certain species of fish — cod, for example.
In theory, catch shares encourage conservation because each catch share becomes more valuable as the species of fish recovers from overfishing and the government increases the total allowable catch. Critics say it's a system that privatizes what has been a public resource, threatening to drive out small, independent fishermen.
Catch shares had been pushed for years by a rich and powerful coalition of academics and activists, funded by grants from wealthy philanthropies. The Environmental Defense Fund and Lubchenco, the vice chairwoman of the EDF's board of directors before she joined the government, were at the center of the coalition.
Their moment arrived when Barack Obama was elected president.
Days after the election, a public policy group convened by the Environmental Defense Fund and two other environmental groups issued a policy paper for the incoming administration titled "Oceans of Abundance."
It was written by Lubchenco and a select group of proteges and fellow supporters of catch shares.
Lubchenco and her co-authors provided dramatic findings to back up their call for the reorganization of the fisheries.
"The global oceans are being emptied of seafood," they warned. "Scientists report that 90 percent of large fish — highly sought after species like tuna and swordfish — have been removed from the oceans."
Other scientists would dispute the claim, but Lubchenco soon found herself in a position to put into effect the policies she had pushed and helped popularize.
A transition team that included Monica Medina recruited Lubchenco to head NOAA. Medina had been chief counsel at NOAA in the Clinton administration but spent the Bush years practicing law, with EDF among her clients. Her husband, Ron Klain, became chief of staff to Vice President Joseph Biden. He had been chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore in the Clinton administration.
Lubchenco, in turn, hired Medina in 2009 to spearhead a federal task force on catch shares.
The Environmental Defense Fund has made no secret of the fact that it aims to access the levers of government power.
The group explained the strategy in a 2005 internal document obtained by the Times, believed to be a grant request sent to a potential financial backer.
The goal, it said, was to promote catch shares, described as a system that "couples strong regulatory action with market forces to create sustainable fisheries.
"The most important element of our strategy," the memo said, "is to work the regulatory process from the inside ..."
EDF boasted it had already succeeded in placing one of its senior staffers — Sally McGee of Mystic, Conn., — on the New England Fisheries Management Council and intended to make "aggressive use of our hard-won seat."
Meanwhile, EDF vice president and Lubchenco colleague David Festa was building "top down" support for its initiatives in Washington.
With Lubchenco's ascension to the top post at NOAA, the activists had become the regulators.
Lubchenco, who refused repeated requests by the Times for an interview for this series, never mentioned catch shares at her confirmation hearing but moved swiftly to implement the system.
Days after her routine confirmation by the Senate, Lubchenco addressed a New England Fisheries Management Council meeting in Mystic, Conn. She directed the council to finish its three years' work writing a partial catch share program for New England's uniquely interrelated, mixed-stock groundfishery.
"I intend to hold you accountable in public view," she said.
She overrode objections from the fishing industry, political leaders representing fishing communities and even some environmental groups — the Pew Charitable Trusts, Food & Water Watch and Ecotrust, among others — who warned that catch shares can wreak social and economic harm.
On May 1, catch shares were imposed on the New England groundfishery.
As Lubchenco consolidated her control over NOAA, the fishing industry and its political advocates had a hard time seeing where EDF ended and the government began.
"The fishing service is not paying attention to anyone anymore," said Richard Burgess, who owns a four-boat fishing business based in Gloucester. "I'm absolutely convinced that Obama is in cahoots with the environmental groups."
Burgess' view is widespread within the industry and the political sector.
"There's a group of environmentalists who've taken an almost religious attitude" toward fish and against fishing communities, Congressman Barney Frank said.
Exasperated after trying to work with Lubchenco, Frank and 22 other federal lawmakers of both parties and both houses of Congress, last month took their complaints over her head to her boss, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. When that brought no relief for the industry, Frank and Sen. John Kerry resolved to press the matter into the White House.
"I've always been skeptical of Lubchenco," he told the Times after the May 10 meeting with Locke. "Either she doesn't understand the impact of what she's doing — or she doesn't care."
Backing up the political push is a federal law suit against catch shares, filed on behalf of fishing businesses from New Hampshire to North Carolina. The plaintiffs include the cities of Gloucester and New Bedford, New England's fishing capitals.
Congressman Frank and Gov. Deval Patrick have said they will file amicus briefs, and the Republican candidate for governor, Charlie Baker, has made clear he also supports the suit.
The suit argues the catch share rules will "eventually bankrupt the fleet" and are a needless burden on a fishery that is "substantially recovered."
'So much fish'
A remarkable restoration was underway in the New England fishing industry long before catch shares were imposed and long before the doomsday warnings of "Oceans of Abundance."
America's first commercial enterprise, begun in Gloucester in 1623, had been brought back from mortal danger in a generation.
"There's so much fish out there," said Capt. Joe Orlando of the Padre Pio, a Gloucester trawler.
"In 1982, we'd go out to Nantucket and then back to Jeffrey's (an inshore fishing grounds to the north) for seven or eight days for 20,000 to 30,000 pounds of fish," he said. "Now, we get that one or two hours (on a day trip), that's how much the fish are coming back."
Even Lubchenco's agency acknowledges progress.
"We are getting closer every year to ending overfishing," NOAA Fisheries said in May, in releasing the official status of the fisheries report for 2009. Featured was what the government calls its "Fish Stock Sustainability Index." The index is a rough measure of the vitality of the ocean ecosystem, the way the Dow Jones Report is a reflection of the status of Wall Street.
Rising for the ninth straight year, the fish index was up a total of 60 percent from the start of the decade.
NOAA also removed swordfish from the list of fish needing protection, contradicting the claim in "Oceans of Abundance" they were all but wiped out.
The turnaround has come with steep costs. Landings of fish have dropped by two-thirds since the 1970s, when the first efforts at conservation were undertaken.
The size of the New England groundfishing fleet, based in Gloucester and New Bedford, is roughly half what it was a decade ago, and faces even more intense losses in the switch to catch shares, a policy that encourages radical consolidation.
Despite the gains, more losses lie ahead under catch shares.
"Dr. Lubchenco says the recent analysis suggests a significant fraction of the vessels will need to be removed to make the fishery sustainable and profitable," her office told the Times last year.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.