By Richard Gaines
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.
The senator seemed exasperated that NMFS "totally dismissed" a 15-1 recommendation from the policy-making and advisory New England Fishery Management Council to regulate more lightly in the coming year; instead, she continued, NMFS' action would leave federal permit holders with "20 days" to fish — "three weeks to make a living."
Snowe could have added that a nearly united alliance of congressional officials representing the New England seacoast has condemned the Interim Rule, and pledged to "not permit NMFS to regulate our nation's first fishery out of existence."
As she stands poised to take NOAA's top posts, leading NMFS officials said this week they're ready to brief Lubchenco on what they consider their top two priorities.
In a visit to the Gloucester Daily Times, Kurkul and James Balsiger — the acting assistant administrator for U.S. fisheries and essentially the nation's current fishing regulatory chief — both said they'd push for the new NOAA leader to address the New England Fishery and the Interim Rule.
Snowe described NMFS — without naming Kurkul, its face in New England — as haughty, dismissive and isolated.
And then she asked Lubchenco what she was going to do about it, once confirmed. The seeming formality of a vote by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has been delayed for reasons unrelated to Lubchenco's nomination.
"It appears to be a seriously dysfunctional relationship," Lubchenco agreed. "Polarization has really permeated and poisoned all the discussions (between the regulators and the regulated)."
She said she believed the time had come "to create a new climate of trust."
Science, the medium of her mastery, is her choice for the rapprochement.
What was needed, Lubchenco offered, was "data to believe in."
Pew connections and credentials
"Data to believe in" — that's the rub.
Within the New England fishing industry, scrutiny of Lubchenco's resume moved past her associations with the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Swedish Academy, the American Philosophical Society and the like to a series of leadership positions in the interests of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
To many in the fishing industry, data that comes financed by the Pew Charitable Trusts is data to be doubted, and in Lubchenco, many in the industry see a proud Pew partisan who is about to take authority over the nation's fisheries and its remaining fishermen and women.
Lubchenco has been a Pew fellow, a member of the Pew Oceans Commission and the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative that evolved from it. In these endeavors, she was teamed with Leon Panetta, the former chief of staff for President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama's choice to be CIA director.
She also lists herself as a director of the Pew trust-financed SeaWeb, which describes itself as existing to "raise awareness of the world ocean and the life within it," according to Nils E. Stolpe, a columnist for National Fisherman, who has been reporting on the Pew campaign for many years.
"I don't find (Pew-financed science) to be really clean," said Eric Anderson, president of the 75-member New Hampshire Commercial Fishermen's Association. "I have questions about how pure and clean it really is, there's a lack of transparency."
"The Pew jacket on her — that scares me," Gloucester fisherman Russell Sherman said.
Vast in wealth with an endowment in the billions and generous to an arsenal of environmental platforms worldwide, some pre-existing and some created by Pew interests, the descendents of Joseph N. Pew, founder of Sun Oil Co., have created a powerful force that advances along political fronts under many banners.
Only days ago, the Pew Environmental Group, through the "Herring Alliance," activated a federal lawsuit against NMFS, demanding it crack down on the herring fleet, which is allowed to trawl in mid-levels through areas of fish-rich waters that are closed to groundfishing trawlers.
And on Tuesday, an organization called the "Environmental Working Group California Office and economist Ussif Rashid Smaila, acting director of the Fisheries Center at the University of British Columbia," released a "groundbreaking study" in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management.
It found governments had contributed more than $6.4 billion to commercial fishing operations between 1996 and 2004. As a result of the subsidies, according to the "peer-reviewed" study that the authors unveiled via a public relations news wire, "depletion of once-bountiful fish species (is) accelerating."
The study was "supported" by the Lenfest Ocean Program, a non-profit organization that, according to its Web site, was founded at the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2004 and, to date, has received nearly $4 million in Pew trust funding.
"The Obama administration's task is clear," the Environmental Working Group scientists noted. "It's up to the new administration to move aggressively to end harmful subsidy programs that are causing pollution and global warming and have pushed some species to the brink of extinction."
In 2001, the New York Times declared the Pew trusts, with their "deep pockets and focus on political advocacy ... not only the most important new player but also the most controversial, among fellow environmentalists and its opponents in industry."
The New York Times found that "unlike many philanthropies that give to conservation groups, Pew has been anything but hands off."
In the following years, Pew trust money largely underwrote the court case that propelled the New England fishing industry into the regulatory maelstrom that Sen. Snowe laid out before Lubchenco last month — even as NMFS employed its own science to fix on the weakest link in the complex of 19 species along the bottom.
Stolpe, who has been covering Pew Charitable Trust ventures and the evolution of the Pew-financed environmental movement for years, reported in 2001 how a public opinion survey of concerns about the ocean by SeaWeb mysteriously shifted conclusions.
In the introduction to the results, as he reported, SeaWeb stated, "Americans believe the ocean's problems stem from many sources, but oil companies are seen as a prime culprit. In fact, 81 percent of Americans believe the oil spills are a very serious problem."
"Overfishing evidently wasn't considered a 'very serious problem' and was lumped in with 'the loss of critical species' to make the cut as a 'meaningful indicator of trouble.'
"But in an article on the poll in SeaWeb's November 1996 monthly update," Stople wrote, "the only specific threat to the oceans mentioned was overfishing. Along with three paragraphs of vague generalities was this statement: 71 percent (of respondents) agree that overfishing is threatening the health and stability of the marine environment."
The concern recorded about oil spills had vanished.
Lubchenco's office said the nominee would not give interviews until after the confirmation vote.
But her statements during the hearing conveyed a sense of the deep, nearly irreconcilable conflicts that she must mediate as the head of NOAA.
Responding to Snowe's invitation to provide a pledge to restore reason to the theater of conflict in New England, Lubchenco said she saw a choice between "today and tomorrow."
Lubchenco contended the harsh consequences of the protection of the groundfishery since 2001 have produced results. More than $2 billion has been generated via the 12 stocks that were restored, she said. But Lubchenco said she also understood the importance of sustaining the industry during economic hard times.
"Difficult decisions, difficult choices," she said. "Those choices will be no less difficult but will be more acceptable if there is a better climate of trust."
Richard Gaines can be reached at email@example.com.