, Gloucester, MA

March 25, 2009

New NOAA chief's first steps seem in right direction

It's not at all certain that the fishing industry has a friend, or even a real open mind, in Jane Lubchenco, President Obama's choice to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But there is certainly every reason for at least cautious optimism, based both on what Lubchenco has and hasn't done during her first week as the new chief of NOAA and its National Marine Fisheries Service.

Lubchenco, whose appointment to head the agency that oversees commercial fishing was confirmed late last week, has spent her first few days on the job listening to those on all sides of the hotly disputed, one-year Interim Rule for the region's commercial groundfishing industry.

The rule is scheduled to take effect May 1, the beginning of the fishing year. If it is not modified, it would eliminate all but hook fishing along the entire southern coast of New England, and would further limit fishermen's permitted Days at Sea — in short, put even tighter restrictions on an industry already on the brink of being regulated out of business by an agency that seems committed to forcing fishermen out of business.

Lubchenco, who met separately with those representing fishing interests and with environmentalists, told Times reporter Richard Gaines that, while she intended to move "relatively rapidly," on the Interim Rule, "We have made no decision yet."

Those who fear the impact of such draconian restrictions have reason to be concerned about Lubchenco's nomination and appointment. While she is seen as qualified — she is a marine biologist and a professor at Oregon State University — there is also plenty of evidence that she is an environmental ideologue.

She has close ties to the Pew Charitable Trust, a multi-billion dollar philanthropy with a focus on ending what it views as "overfishing." Indeed, during her confirmation hearing, Lubchenco spoke in favor of "no-fish" zones like the one proposed for the waters off southern New England through the Interim Rule.

But this week, several members of the New England Fishery Management Council who represent fishing interests said Lubchenco impressed them in her meeting with them as open-minded and curious.

A spokeswoman for Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, of Maine, said Snowe was impressed by Lubchenco's expressed commitment to fix a relationship between the fishing industry and the National Marine Fisheries Service that Lubchenco herself called "seriously dysfunctional." NOAA oversees the NMFS.

That much should be obvious to anybody involved. The NMFS, especially in recent months, has been exposed as a rogue agency bent on the intimidation and punishment of anyone who dares to challenge its regulations. It is unwilling to compromise. A September vote of the New England Fishery Management Council against the Interim Rule passed 15-1, with the only "no" vote coming from NMFS's Patricia Kurkul, yet Kurkul moved to impose the Interim rule anyway as NMFS regional administrator.

Besides that, after a federal judge threw out major elements of the current regulations, known as Framework 42, NMFS ramped up punitive enforcement tactics. It moved in February to shut down the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction for 120 days and fine it $335,000 for alleged violations of fishery regulations — despite the fact that the auction is hardly responsible for policing the boats that come to sell their catch. And it has levied crushing fines against individual fishermen for minor infractions — the equivalent of a jail sentence for barely running a stop sign. The latest, which arrived yesterday, was for $49,000 (See news story, Page 1). And remember, all of these "indictments" come without a discovery for the accused, who have to appeal under an administrative judicial system stacked in NMFS' favor.

If Lubchenco is serious about fixing such a dysfunctional agency, as well as its relationship with the industry, she will begin by ordering an end to the NMFS power trip. And the proof will be in her actions, not her words.

It will be in whether she has truly heard the concerns of the industry and even the New England Fisheries Management Council, not merely listened to them. And it should come in her revising the Interim Rule, so that it follows the line of the council, votes, not one administrator's heavy-handed stand.

But her willingness to listen before putting a rubber stamp on a rule that could stamp out a major portion of the industry, is encouraging, to say the least. Let's hope she carries that openness to the additional steps needed to truly regain the industry's respect and trust.