Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist whose career path has followed the borders of academe politics, and foundation funding, has been confirmed — quietly, and after a long delay — to head up the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The U.S. Senate confirmed the Oregon State University professor late Thursday by unanimous consent. No overt comments — and few pointed questions — were raised.
With an unannounced plan, Lubchenco takes her place as scientist cum laude in a Democratic administration that sees itself engaged in desperate struggle to bring humanity belatedly into a sustainable relationship with the natural world, degraded by human-induced global warming and overfishing, among other smudges.
She comes to NOAA as a former MacArthur ("genius") scholar and Pew fellow — and with a documented commitment to end "overfishing."
An action agenda for the new administration, written last fall by a team of two dozen high-profile figures of science and politics including Lubchenco, warned that the current course of fishing would leave an ocean empty of food fish but swarming with jellyfish.
The urgency of that call to action has been disputed. The references in the study include a 2003 peer-reviewed paper that has been widely criticized in mainstream science as being alarmist.
The study itself is closely linked to the agenda of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which was built with Sun Oil Co. profits.
As undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, Lubchenco will preside over the National Marine Fisheries Service which is struggling off all three coasts, Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific, to crack the oceans' secrets, make and enforce effective policies to conserve the fisheries and sustain the fishing industries.
James Balsiger, NOAA's national acting assistant administrator for fisheries, has said he will advise Lubchenco that the most important item on the national fishing agenda is bringing peace and stability to the New England region — including Gloucester — where the fishing industry has been fighting a losing rear guard action against NMFS policies aimed at culling the boats to reduce fishing capacity and achieving a statutorily mandated complete recovery of the multistock ecosystem by 2011.
Her spokesman, David Miller, yesterday said Lubchenco had no immediate plans to come to Gloucester whence NMFS regulates fishing from Canada to the Carolinas.
Although she managed to navigate from nomination last December to confirmation Thursday without revealing too much of what she has in mind for the oceans and the boats of hunter-gatherers, she did concede in questioning at her hearing that the relationship between NMFS and the New England industry was "seriously dysfunctional."
One immediate side effect of her confirmation, however, will likely be publication of a highly controversial yearlong Interim Rule to govern the fishery until the start of a phased-in new system in 2010.
The future approach, based on "catch shares," will replace the various iterations of effort controls that have brought the industry and the government into an icy cold war filled with recrimination and mistrust.
NOAA fisheries' efforts at enforcing the bureaucratic regulations of effort controls has sparked a bitter backlash of allegations of vindictive and neofascistic behavior by law enforcers, including the once friendly Coast Guard.
State legislative officials have petitioned their colleagues in Congress for relief.
At the same time, the New England coastal coalition in Congress has pledged to prevent NMFS from implementing the Interim Rule, which has been described as producing the coup de grace of the fishing industry.
In a 1,500-word technical analysis of the Interim Rule, seven U.S. senators — led by Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican — concluded that the Interim Rule does not build a "bridge" between the old system of effort controls and the future one of catch shares, "and instead will bankrupt a majority of our groundfishing industries."
The Interim Rule would effectively create a "no-take zone" (by all technology except hooks) along the entire southerly waters of New England from Long Island, N.Y., to beyond Cape Cod to Georges Bank.
Even U.S. Sen. John Kerry, an unapologetic admirer of Lubchenco and the Pew charities, has described the Interim Rule as an "existential threat" to the industry. He has been leading an effort to graft a substitute rule for the one written by NMFS.
Lubchenco called Snowe yesterday to let her know that New England fisheries, and the groundfish interim regulations specifically, would be among her highest priorities for the first months of her tenure, according to Snowe's press secretary, Julia Wanzco.
"Sen. Snowe was impressed by this commitment to rebuilding the relationship between regulators and fishermen that will have to start with significant changes to the interim rule," Wanczo said.
At her confirmation hearing, Lubchenco was questioned briefly about her enthusiasm for such "no-take zones". Lubchenco repeated her belief that closing off fishing, while harsh medicine, strengthens the ecology and pays off in the long run.
"To secure our seafood supply and the jobs that depend on fishing," Lubchenco's working group wrote in the paper intended for President Barack Obama and his team at NOAA and NMFS, "we must solve the overfishing problem. That is not only a moral mandate, it's also mandated by law.
"When Congress revised the (Magnuson-Stevens Act), it required an end to overfishing in the U.S. by 2011, an important deadline for the Obama administration. But ending overfishing will be difficult and expensive if we continue to use the conventional management tools that have led us to this point," the report asserts.
Now, Jane Lubchenco, who helped write the report, is in a position to implement it.
Richard Gaines can be reached email@example.com