A number of fishing interests say they see inconsistency — even hypocrisy — in the different degrees of scientific skepticism applied on fishing and oil spill issues by Jane Lubchenco, the scientist who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Since April 20, when BP's Deepwater Horizon oil well ruptured, Lubchenco, a marine biologist, is viewed by many as having moved with caution, acting with deference to the corporation and advising against jumping to conclusions pending scientific proof regarding oil plumes and other observed degradations of the Gulf of Mexico.
But since her appointment at the start of the Obama administration a year and a half ago, when it comes to catch shares — the market-based fishery regulatory system she scoped out while an official of the Environmental Defense Fund — her attitude has been indisputably gung-ho.
Lubchenco has been widely criticized for leaping to the conclusion that the radical reorganization of the fisheries into a system in which fishermen's "shares" of a government-controlled catch can be bought, sold or traded has been scientifically proven as better for the resource and the economy — even in the face of intense and broad industry opposition and heated scientific debate.
"BP gets the benefit of the doubt, and we don't," state Sen. Bruce Tarr mused as he left a meeting of Gloucester fishermen and businessmen on Friday. The session was called by Mayor Carolyn Kirk to exchange reports, all highly critical, on the first six weeks of catch share groundfishing in New England.
Working on a glitch-filled communications technology platform with allocations much smaller than last year's catch on key species, an estimated two thirds of the boats have held off going out to sea at all under the new system.
Tarr's sense of Lubchenco's shifting scientific approach was shared throughout New England — and also in the South, where the impact of the uncontrolled oil effusion is palpable.
"There is a reluctance concerning science pertaining to oil in the Gulf, but no reluctance for any reason for catch shares in the Southeast and Northeast," said Bob Jones, executive director of the Tallahassee, Fla.-based Southeastern Fisheries Association, the region's leading trade group of 450 harvesters and shore-side businesses.
Although she failed to mention catch shares in her confirmation hearing in January 2009 before the Senate Commerce Committee, Lubchenco immediately began pushing catch shares as a panacea for America's fisheries.
It was a conclusion she reached before the election while in a working group of like-minded scientists and former and present politicians, including EDF chairman N.J. Nicholas. At the time, she was vice chairwoman of the Environmental Defense Fund board.
The approach which was first used in the U.S. in the mid-Atlantic surf clam fishery in 1990, and has been applied to 16 fisheries on three coasts.
But Lubchenco came to office fully committed to implementing the format. She brought in a politically connected lawyer, Monica Medina, rather than a scientist, to head the NOAA Catch Share Task Force. And Medina — who served on the Obama transition team for NOAA that selected Lubchenco — undertook the assignment by skipping over the question of "whether" privatizing the fisheries was prudent national policy to focus on how best to effect the conversion.
Opposition was fierce nearly everywhere because of catch shares' penchant for radical industry consolidation, and at least short-term job losses in fishing communities.
Lubchenco herself has volunteered that her goal is to see "a significant fraction" of the fishing boats put out of business — eventually to be replaced by a smaller number of investor-strengthened bigger businesses.
In many ways, the catch share system parallels the cap-and-trade path to reduced-carbon production that EDF has also favored, in alliance with big oil, including BP, for a number of years.
The case Lubchenco made for catch shares was explicitly fused to a claim of proof that catch shares "halt or even reverse the global trend toward collapse (of world fisheries)," as her office wrote to the Times in April 2009 as the campaign was gaining momentum.
She cited a single study, in Science Magazine from September 2008, "Can Catch Shares Prevent Fisheries Collapse?" by a trio of scientists including Steven Gaines, her brother-in-law and one-time student at Oregon State.
The lead author was Christopher Costello, an economist at University of California at Santa Barbara, and a senior scientist at COMPASS — the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea founded by Lubchenco in 1999 to train scientists in the art of popularizing their work and convert research into policy. Costello and Gaines also served on a working group organized by EDF to write the catch share policy for the incoming Obama administration.
NOAA's 2011 budget proposal, which pulled funds from various uses — including cooperative research — into a $54 million catch share implementation kitty, claims the "scientific evidence is compelling that catch shares can also help restore the health of ecosystems and put fisheries on a path to profitability and sustainability."
But the only scientific citation refers to an EDF report.
Lubchenco and EDF claims of proof of catch shares' positive powers clash with much research and the views of the Pew Environment Group, Ecotrust and Food & Water Watch, and many scientists, including Brian Rothschild at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.
Ecotrust, an Oregon-based nonprofit that receives Pew funding, last month began a campaign aimed at disproving claims for catch shares by Lubchenco and EDF. Ecotrust Vice President Astrid Scholz blogged Sunday that catch shares are "one of the largest government handouts (ever) of a public resource to private interests."
"There is a notable lack of analysis (by NOAA) of the effects of catch shares on communities," Scholz wrote.
Ecotrust, she said, has found numerous "negatives side effects ... Fishing quota prices are out of step with the value and health of fish stocks; profits are eroding due to quota lease costs; and communities, crews and new entrants to the market end up all but shut out of fisheries."
Last November, during a national teleconference by the Pew Environment Group critiquing catch shares, Zeke Grader, representing an association of West Coast fishing groups, cautioned against allowing "free-market ideologues to run the show."
At the same time, however, Lubchenco has taken a more cautious approach to claims by independent scientists of oil plumes deep in the Gulf water column. On May 17, she deflected questions by Gwen Ifill of the PBS News Hour about the oil plume that a research vessel had found.
"...Science is a process," Lubchenco explained. "We're in the very early stages of understanding what it is that they saw. It's clear that there's something at depth, but we don't even know that it's oil yet."
"What else would it be?" asked Ifill.
On June 2, the Huffington Post's Dan Froomkin completed a lengthy survey of the various ways in which Lubchenco and her agency have attempted use authority to squelch scientific research reaching the public — "lest there be any doubt that it is official NOAA policy to minimize the nature of the threat posed by sub-surface oil..."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.