Jane Lubchenco, the celebrated academic scientist whose four years at the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration devolved into a bitter political battle with the fishing industry and its congressional and political allies of both parties, Wednesday announced her resignation effective at the end of February.
Lubchenco brought to her sub-cabinet position a faith that creating commodity markets trading in catch shares would induce conservation, efficiency of effort and a new profitability for the ports.
In her internal NOAA email Wednesday, she proclaimed success on all fronts, but she leaves with the Northeast groundfishery, the high profile case study for catch shares, in shambles, declared a “disaster” by the acting commerce secretary in September, 11 months after Gov. Deval Patrick sought the declaration.
Adding insult to injury, Lubchenco inexplicably went to pains to protect the careers, salaries and reputations of the enforcement agents and litigators, including the chief of law enforcement, who had undertaken campaigns of legal terror against fishermen, extracting irrationally heavy fines for often minute violations of bureaucratic regulations, as multiple reports by the Commerce Department inspector general documented.
Although her internal email announcing her decision to resign proudly proclaimed her service as defined by “transparency, integrity, innovation, teamwork and communications,” she ignored or deflected countless written requests for her reasoning in keeping around the discredited old guard, after the Inspector General testified to Congress that then NOAA law enforcement Chief Dale Jones shredded the majority of documents in his office during the first active investigation of law enforcement excesses in 2010.
Lubchenco, a MacArthur “genius” award winner, implied in her email announcement that her resignation was induced by yearning for family and academia. “... As wonderful as Skype is for staying in touch, it is not a viable long-term arrangement!” she wrote.
But as recently as Oct. 4, she told Science Magazine’s blog ScienceInsider she hoped to remain a member of a second Obama administration. “There is so much more yet to do, and I want to do everything possible to make [it] happen,” she is quoted as saying.
The White House did not respond to questions about the impetus for her decision to resign.
Lubchenco’s imperious manner — ignoring long letters on fisheries policy from Congressman Barney Frank, breaking numerous commitments to U.S. Sen. John Kerry to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee — as well as her pivotal role at the center of an antifishing conservation movement and her relentless promotion of investor-ready catch shares once in office all contributed to the widespread feeling in Congress and along the docks that Lubchenco was no friend of the fishermen, who had over the centuries maintained a business model emphasizing small scale and local control.
Democratic Congressmen Frank and John Tierney were joined by Republican U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and Republican Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina in declaring Lubchenco a failed leader whose continued presence at NOAA barred progress in rebuilding industry trust in government. Alone in the delegation, Kerry maintained a nuanced aggravation with Lubchenco, as was clear in his statement Wednesday.
“This is a really critical time for our fishermen’s economic situation, and I hope it’ll also be the moment when we begin a new era for our fishing communities in terms of their relationships and their dealing with NOAA,” he said in an email. “The next NOAA administrator can set a tone on Day One by proactively offering a seat at the table for our fishermen in the decision-making ... .”
“Administrator Lubchenco has implemented job-killing policies that have decimated the Massachusetts fishing fleet,” said Brown, who was defeated in November by Democrat Elizabeth Warren. Brown and Warren agreed that the catch share policy and Lubchenco’s support for discredited law enforcers were corrosive to trust.
“Those failed policies should go out the door along with Administrator Lubchenco,” said Brown, who added he had urged the appointment of a successor capable of ending “this sad chapter of mismanagement, accountability, and hostility to American fishing communities.”
“Our fishing community has suffered under Jane Lubchenco’s leadership at NOAA,” said Tierney. “Reports that she will resign in the coming months are certainly welcomed and provide the administration with an opportunity to set NOAA on a different course.”
Lubchenco’s ascent to power over oceans and atmosphere for President Obama grew from plans hatched in 1991 to tap the billions in new industrial foundations — Intel, Hewlett Packard, Wal-Mart — for peer-reviewed science alleging an emptying of the oceans by avaricious fishermen, and money for hands-on member-seeking green groups. These studies and reports, disputed by many independent scientists and defined as reflecting an ends-driven “faith-based fisheries” in one critique by a highly regarded scientist-writer, were meant to underpin radical controls on wild harvesting via marine protected areas and other constricting statutory concepts — 10-year rebuilding timetables, hard catch limits and increased hedging against scientific uncertainty.
As an organizer of the Pew Oceans Commission in 2003, Lubchenco forged new alliances with the likes of Leon Panetta, now U.S. defense secretary, and afterward became vice chairwoman of Environmental Defense Fund, which, with its corporate partner Wal-Mart, campaigned for President Obama to fix the fisheries by reconfiguring them to fit into the globalized investment world — ignoring that the United States had become a global leader in fisheries conservation and was importing more than 80 percent of its seafood.
“Dr. Lubchenco has dedicated her career to science and the environment, and with the appointment of John Bullard as NOAA’s regional administrator, she has done a huge service to fishing families and communities during a crucial period for the industry,” EDF’s senior fisheries adviser Johanna Thomas said in an email.
A member of the faculty at Oregon State University, Lubchenco was introduced at her Senate confirmation hearing by Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon as “the bionic woman of good science.”
But Lubchenco neglected to mention her single issue agenda — convert fisheries into commodity markets, with the Northeast groundfishery as the immediate target for transformation, an event that has brought accelerated consolidation, as she hoped. In an email to the Times soon after taking office, her press secretary said she hoped to see “a significant fraction” of the boats eliminated.
“While Dr. Lubchenco’s departure will provide a welcome opportunity for NOAA to have a different perspective in February, critical decisions will be made between now and then that could do significant damage to our fishing families,” said state Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester. “Hopefully she will use the time remaining in her tenure to change the current course of devastating regulations, questionable science and persistent distrust to create the chance for her successor to initiate a new era in fisheries management.”
Richard Gaines may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.