By Richard Gaines
Doug Rader, chief ocean scientist at Environmental Defense Fund, conceded Monday his organization's 2008 policy paper predicting a jellyfish-dominated oceanic catastrophe oversimplified the problem.
"Oceans of Abundance," which was underwritten by the Walton Family Foundation and co-authored by NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, then an EDF official, foresaw "the collapse of global fisheries in our lifetimes," to be replaced by "massive swarms of jellyfish" — unless the wild stocks were immediately privatized and commodified for "catch share" trading in the global investment market.
EDF's Rader was responding to a Monday Times story about the publication in the February issue of BioScience on research that found no evidence of a trend toward an explosion of the jellyfish — or "gelatinous zooplankton" — filling the void left by the removal of more complex fishes.
The team was headed by ecologist Robert Condon of the Dauphin Island Sea in Alabama and 17 other scientists.
The "jellyfish thesis" had become a lightning rod due to Lubchenco's status as a distinguished scientist when she came to office. At the same time, she has presided over rapid expansion of catch share regimens, including into the New England groundfishery, based on shaky claims and fierce industry and congressional resistance.
"The single 'jellyfish world' paradigm was always too simple," Rader said in a Monday email response to questions submitted by the Times.
"While scientists agree that widespread alterations of coastal and marine ecosystems are occurring around the world, those transformations take different forms," he added. "In every case, we believe that good solid management, created in direct consultation with fishermen, can achieve important benefits for both marine ecosystems and fishing communities."
Lubchenco, through her spokesman Justin Kenney, again declined to reassess Oceans of Abundance. The Times submitted response requests to her office Friday and Monday.
However, in April 2009, soon after her Senate confirmation, in written response to questions, Lubchenco said she "strongly endorses" the Oceans of Abundance report, and cited a single, 2008 scientific study as evidence that privatization of fisheries worked best. That study was co-written by her brother-in-law, Steve Gaines, dean of the Donald Bren School of Environmental Sciences at University of California at Santa Barbara.
Lubchenco neglected to mention her intention to institute a national catch share policy in her confirmation hearing in January.
But she made her intentions clear soon after taking office, and in her written statement to the Times on April 4, 2009, she anticipated that the catch share program for New England would mean that "a significant fraction of the vessels will need to be removed to make the fishery sustainable and profitable."
Since the beginning of catch share fishing in New England in May 2010, the groundfishing industry has undergone an accelerated consolidation adding to unemployment and steering more quota into the hands of the best capitalized fishing businesses.
Critics of catch shares, including Brian Rothschild, another distinguished marine scientist, dismisses the catch share conversion as an economic re-engineering whose primary impact was efficiency.
"The Condon study contributes to a building view that NOAA's catch-share policy and its foundation document, the Oceans of Abundance report, are based on lapses in critical thinking that are serious and not consistent with the precepts of the National Environmental Policy Act," Rothschild, a member of the faculty at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth's School of Marine Science and Technology, said in an email.
The Commerce Department inspector general's office last month announced the start of an investigation into the way ocean regulatory policy was made.
The action was requested by Congressmen Barney Frank and John Tierney who — along with the Scott Lang, then the mayor of New Bedford, and Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk — have publicly suspected that EDF and other non-government organizations have exerted improper influence on the NOAA since Lubchenco came to office.
NOAA has a Wednesday deadline to respond to briefs filed in the First Circuit of Appeals in Boston by the cities of Gloucester and New Bedford and fishing interests all along the New England and Mid-Atlantic coasts — all of whom allege that the catch share regimen was illegally erected by nimbly circumventing a requirement of the Magnuson-Stevens Act that new catch share policies go to referendum.
The argument for immediate introduction of catch shares in Oceans of Abundance is anchored to the definition of the problem — a "scientific consensus that fishing is fundamentally altering ocean ecosystems which are increasingly likely to yield massive swarms of jellyfish rather than food fish."
The jellyfish reference is linked by footnote to a paper by Jeremy B. C. Jackson of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the Scripps Institution for Oceanography in San Diego.
But while Jackson's paper, published by the National Academy of Sciences, freely predicts an apocalyptic future for the seas and is entitled "Ecological Extinction and Evolution in the Brave New Ocean," it does not envision the ascent of jellyfish, or anything quite as specific.
"We can only guess at the kind of organisms that will benefit from this mayhem," Jackson wrote.
With many close ties and business links with Wall Street, EDF is known for its trust in free markets to relieve environmental problems — promoting the "cap-and-trade" approach to reducing carbon emissions, and recently championing the "fracting" of natural gas from shale deposits.
The Walton Family Foundation is seeded with Wal-Mart money. Jackson at the time of his 2008 paper was a member of the board of the World Wildlife Foundation, which was listed along with EDF and the Marine Conservation Biology Institute as co-sponsors of the Oceans of Abundance project.
Investor N.J. Nicholas, the former president of Time Inc., and then chairman of the EDF board, was among the working group for the project that featured Lubchenco.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.