Jane Lubchenco’s provocative tenure as NOAA administrator ended Thursday, three years, 11 months and nine days after it began, with the groundfishey she promised to save in an apparent death spiral.
Her next stop will be Stanford University, which has hired the marine scientist long associated with marine protected areas and other concepts to limit or control fishing for the spring semester to be the Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor at Stanford’s Haas Center for Public Service.
No successor or acting head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been named.
In the Obama administration, she delivered on his 2008 campaign promise for “change you can believe in,” but the changes she brought, while audacious in nature — junking the original notion of the wild stocks as commonly held for an allocation of catching rights based on the principle of commodity trading — did not produce the promised results, conservation of the resource and profitability for the participants.
Her appointment brought into authority over the oceans and atmosphere a figure many in the fishing community came to see as an ideologue, and her initiatives triggered angry protests by fishermen and their families, as she moved quickly to institute her program which was predicated on making the still largely locally owned industry more open and available to investors.
The first protest, outside NOAA’s Northeast headquarters in Gloucester’s Blackburn Industrial Park in October 2009, featured a effigy of Lubchenco lynching fishermen. In February 2010, up to 5,000 fishermen and supporters gathered at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., united for the first time in history by common concerns. A third protest followed in D.C. a year later.
Along the way, Lubchenco refused to appoint the celebrated marine scientist Brian Rothschild, a favorite of the industry, to head the National Marine Fisheries Service, despite Rothschild getting the endorsement of Barney Frank, then the congressman for New Bedford, and the leader of an informal congressional fishing caucus,
Yet the White House remained mute through her troubled tenure, which brought demands for her dismissal from Frank, Rep. John Tierney, whose district includes Cape Ann, and a number of Republicans including Sen. Scott Brown, defeated in November by Democrat Elizabeth Warren.
The White House also did not issue the typically obligatory statement of thanks and praise for her contributions to the nation’s progress at the time of her resignation announcement via email to NOAA employees, nor did it comment this week or respond to questions from the Times, seeking an evaluation of her performance. Instead, the White House referred questions to the Commerce Department — which did not respond to the same query.
Frank described her as an intellectually dishonest environmental zealot “with an anti-fishing agenda.”
The commodification of the groundfishery, which she insisted would engender conservation and yield new profits, instead devolved into a socio-economic disaster, formally declared by the acting commerce secretary but left unfunded, leaving the industry to contract more radically in the coming year, placing the oldest continuous industry in America in mortal jeopardy.
Nonetheless, in her resignation email, Lubchenco claimed that she had made “notable progress” in “ending over-fishing, rebuilding depleted stocks, and returning fishing to profitability.”
Her approach was imperious and seemingly lacked empathy. She intended to ignore past episodes of law enforcement abuse of fishermen and business owners which were brought to light by the inspector general for the Commerce Department in 2010, but was overruled by then-Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who commissioned a special judicial master to review the most egregious cases of justice miscarried against the industry, and then sent Lubchenco to Gloucester to issue a Cabinet-level apology for him and announce more than $650,000 in reparations.
A second chapter of case studies brought more reparations last month, but Lubchenco made no effort over her tenure to fire or discipline the law enforcement agents and litigators when they felt like it treated fishermen like subjects rather than citizens.
“Jane proved to be heartless,” said Mayor Carolyn Kirk. “She came to Gloucester and lent a sympathetic ear — and then showed nothing but contempt for the fishermen. I don’t understand it.”
“Who comes into a community, offering an apology and $600,000 in reparations, and yet is more disliked when they leave than they had been before?” Tierney said with amazement last fall. “It takes a special set of skills to do that.”
Then-Sen. John Kerry, was one member of the congressional delegation who sometimes shielded Lubchenco — never calling for her ouster, for example. Yet, in private, he, too, was exasperated by her inability to empathize, as an email exchange with his brother, Cameron, general counsel for the Commerce Department, illustrated.
In the emails which were obtained under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, John Kerry wrote to brother Cam:
“I know that it’s hard to deliver bad news, but there are ways to do it that make people feel you’re doing everything possible to help. Lubchenco has failed to convey that despite all the opportunities we’ve given her.
“I’m aware and at wit’s end,” Cam Kerry wrote back.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.