The jellyfish are not taking over the oceans after all, according to a new peer-reviewed scientific study.
The work of 18 scientists in the February issue of BioScience magazine undercuts the claim most closely associated with a political manifesto by NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, herself a distinguished scientist, made in her previous position as an officer of Environmental Defense Fund.
That thesis, "Oceans of Abundance," was that uncontrolled fishing will leave nothing in the seas except jellyfish, unless the wild resources were immediately privatized and commodified, fitted into the global investment market via catch shares' trading.
The thesis has been transformed into U.S. policy by the Obama presidency, with Lubchenco appointed to head oceans and fisheries in 2009 and working since then to complete the re-engineering of one of the nation's oldest industries.
In the New England groundfishery, catch share trading has accelerated consolidation, adding to unemployment and to the holdings of the best capitalized fishing businesses. NOAA figures show that the Gloucester groundfishing fleet alone saw some two dozen of the harbor's then-95 boats driven to the sidelines in the 2010 fishing year, the first under the catch-share system.
In the new report, the scientists found no signs that human and natural factors were clearing the way for jellyfish mastery of the seas.
"Coupled with media-driven perception," wrote the team headed by Robert H. Condon, of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, "a paradigm has evolved in which the global ocean ecosystems are thought to be heading toward being dominated by 'nuisance' jellyfish."
Although the authors found no justification for that conclusion, they pointed to the public fascination with and repulsion from the "gelatinous zooplankton" — which sting and can even kill in spite of their icky, seemingly inoffensive appearance — to explain the phenomenon of fear surrounding a future jellyfish dominance of the world's oceans.
With more scientific studies, news coverage has multiplied rapidly under headlines that are "often alarmist," the scientists wrote.
The effort to exploit this fear of an ocean dystopia, purportedly caused by industry greed and government mismanagement, was at the core of "Oceans of Abundance," which Lubchenco co-wrote in 2008.
Funded in part by the Walton Family Foundation, "Oceans of Abundance's" fervent call for immediate privatization also got support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The Moores were among the founders of Intel Corp.
Another piece of evidence of the need for privatization linked to the jellyfish theory in "Oceans of Abundance" — that alpha predators were being harvested into extinction a la 19th century whaling — had already been debunked by authoritative science long before Lubchenco and her partners inserted the claim into the heavily footnoted political pamphlet.
At what was called a "World Ocean Summit" last month featuring Lubchenco, the same distortions were in evidence during three days of discussions in Singapore among environmentalists, investors, shippers, government leaders and journalists, according to Internet transcripts of prepared statements.
The Economist, whose editor-in-chief chaired the event, has endorsed the catch shares' solution.
Lubchenco's spokesman Justin Kenney declined comment on the BioScience report, as did the Environmental Defense Fund.
"Online reports of jellyfish blooms, even from personal blogs with limited credibility, get an immediate global audience equivalent to that of a reputable news or science report," ecologist Robert Condon and his colleagues wrote in BioScience.
"Oceans of Abundance" was crafted by Lubchenco, and among others, her brother-in-law Stephen Gaines, as well as N.J. Nicholas, the investor and former president of Time, Inc., who at the time, after the 2008 election, was chairman of EDF's board.
Not a peer-reviewed scientific paper despite fulsome footnotes, "Oceans of Abundance" mixed and merged images from science and science fiction to create the impression that fishing was emptying the oceans of its higher organisms, an impending dystopia that cried out for radical medicine — and that medicine was transforming the ocean's seafood resources into tradable commodities.
President-elect Obama not only adopted the program, but gave Lubchenco the position, heading NOAA, that enabled her to implement the investor-driven resource management approach that has become EDF's gospel.
Just last week, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera lauded EDF for its pragmatism in supporting "hydraulic fracting" of shale gas and recommending that regulation of the removal process of the gas from horizontal rock formations near the earth's surface be relegated to the states due to "dysfunction" of the federal government.
Earlier in the week, The New York Times reported on a $45 billion leveraged buyout of a Texas energy system by an EDF partner, KKR, which helped launch the era of leverage — businesses acquired with borrowed funds for flipping and hedging, as well as building.
The collapse of natural gas prices, ironically due in part to the advance of the EDF-backed fracting movement, has scarred the TXU energy gambit, at the time the largest leveraged acquisition on record, made with other investors including Goldman Sachs and Wall Street.
EDF was a principal in the complex structure of the buyers, and from the Texas deal has grown a permanent alliance with Kohlberg, Kravis & Roberts providing advice on how and where to make the world greener.
The case for commodifying — saving — the nation's fisheries in "Oceans of Abundance" was made with blunt force directly to President-elect Obama.
"Evidence is overwhelming," wrote Lubchenco and her co-authors, a mix of scientists, business executives and former politicians. "The global oceans are being emptied of seafood. Scientists report that 90 percent of large fish — highly sought-after species like tuna and swordfish — have been removed from the oceans.
"There is scientific consensus that fishing is fundamentally altering ocean ecosystems which are increasingly likely to yield massive swarms of jellyfish rather than food fish."
That idea, however, was swept aside in an angry warning against agenda-driven fisheries science.
The short but influential paper by Ray Hilborn, "Faith-based Fisheries," written in 2006, called out the leading scientific journals and the nation's leading newspapers, The New York Times and Washington Post, by name for lack of discrimination and a willingness to participate in frightening the public to advance an anti-fishing agenda and build circulation.
Last week, speaking to an audience in Sydney, Australia, Hilborn reprised his warning against agenda-driven science, adding that "NGOs" or non-government organizations were continuing their anti-fishing campaign.
"Australia is subject to a relentless anti-fishing campaign that is causing doom and gloom myths from misrepresentations of overseas examples of inadequate fisheries management," wrote the professor of aquatic and fisheries sciences at University of Washington in Seattle.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.