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March 6, 2009

Pew ties cloud industry view of NOAA chief nominee

At her U.S. Senate confirmation hearing to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, celebrated marine biologist Jane Lubchenco was introduced as "the bionic woman of good science" by Ron Wyden, a senator from her home state of Oregon.

And for the most part, the MacArthur ("genius") Fellowship recipient and Oregon State University faculty star was treated with awe — as her science was taken for granted and her position at the summit of the powerful network of environmental causes financed by the Pew Charitable Trusts was overlooked.

But under questioning by Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, Lubchenco acknowledged a crisis unfolding within her future domain — which employs 12,000 people and spends $3.9 billion a year — at the Gloucester-based regional office of the National Marine Fisheries Service, whose effort to regulate the groundfishery has been gracelessly unraveling.

"I've never seen it so bad," Snowe, with 13 years service on the Commerce Committee's fisheries subcommittee, told Lubchenco, saying the blame was wholly the agency's.

She said the groundfish industry's interests in New England had developed a "lack of trust" in the regional office of NMFS, which is headed by Patricia Kurkul. "Rightfully so," Snowe added.

She offered an abbreviated summary of the schism, skipping the repeated recent lectures delivered to NMFS by a federal judge in Boston, who has rolled back the regulatory scheme of 2006 with orders that the agency do better than pay lip service to regulatory options that might provide some relief for the working fleet.

Instead, Snowe focused Lubchenco on NMFS' march toward the implementation of its Interim Rule to restrict fishing for the coming year — to bar it entirely from the region's southern waters and severely constrain it elsewhere — in response to discouraging data about the recovery of some stocks in the mix of 19 groundfish species.

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