By Richard Gaines
---- — Jane Lubchenco today announced her decision to resign as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the end of February.
Her departure from the Obama administration will end a four-year regimen that promised revitalization of the fisheries via a new economic system based on privatization known as catch shares but instead produced a declared fisheries disaster in the Northeast and a spontaneous resistance by industry all along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
Finding her style to be imperious and rigid, U.S. Congressmen John Tierney, Barney Frank and Scott Brown were united in calling for the president to replace Lubchenco by mid-2010. Fishermen were galvanized by dislike for her personality and policies — especially the commodification of the groundfishery, which has been in a steady decline since her appointment — and held national rallies at the Capitol in 2010 and 2011 that drew more than two dozen members of Congress.
In an email to her subordinates at NOAA, Lubchenco wrote that “I have decided to return to my family and academia at the end of February. I am immensely proud of all we have accomplished in the last four years and know full well that we have been able to do so much only because of your impressive talent and dedication.”
Lubchenco’s email also included a laundry list of achievements including: “ending overfishing, rebuilding depleted stocks and returning fishing to profitability,” none of which has come about. The disaster declaration by Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank last September was a formal admission that the catch share commodification of the Northeast groundfishery had not been successful.
Lubchenco also wrote that her methods were defined by “transparency, integrity, innovation, teamwork and communications.”
However, her four years were dogged by multiple invistigations by the Commerce Department inspector general’s office and two sets of case studies of allegations that NOAA law enforcers, albeit mostly from the previous administration, had abused the rights of the fishing industry.
The second report of the special judicial master, Charles B. Swartwood III, has been withheld since it was submitted in March, which now has brought howls from multiple members of Congress.
Lubchenco also decided against firing, punishing or sanctioning any of the law enforcement cadre under her authority. Instead, she shifted them to other jobs. Lubchenco preferred not to review the allegations of misconduct against the industry. She endorsed a policy of reform without revisits but was overruled by then Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who commissioned Swartwood to follow the strands left from the last of the inspector general’s investigations.
What followed in May 2011 a cabinet level apology — delivered by Lubchenco on behalf of Locke who had not come to Gloucester with her — and more than $600,000 in reparations to the 11 most aggrieved businesses.
Tierney was aghast at her inability to express empathy. In an interview at the Times in October, he said, “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?” “It takes a special set of skills to do that,” he added.
U.S. Sen. John Kerry and his brother Cameron, the general counsel for the Commerce Department, NOAA’s parent agency, also found Lubchenco’s lack of empathy noteworthy. In an email exchange obtained under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, they discussed Lubchenco’s difficulty relating to the fishing industry.
“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,” Sen. Kerry wrote to his brother.
“Lubchenco has failed to convey that despite all the opportunities we’ve given her,” the senator wrote.
“I’m aware and at wit’s end,” Cam Kerry wrote back.
The exchange took place on Oct. 13, 2011, days after Lubchenco finally made a command appearance before a Senate Commerce Committee field hearing organized by Sen. Kerry in Boston.
Lubchenco left in mid-hearing for a meeting with The Boston Globe’s editorial board.
In her first act as NOAA administrator in April 2009, Lubchenco climbed the bully pulpit to direct the New England Fishery Management Council to approve without delay the catch share commodification program for the groundfishery.
The council followed her orders, and more than three years later, the fishery was declared a disaster, 11 months after Gov. Deval Patrick appealed for a disaster declaration blaming catch shares for fueling hyper consolidation of the fleet.
In an email to the Times in April 2009, her spokesman said her aim was to see eliminated “a sizeable fraction of the fleet.”
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Richard Gaines may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.