By Richard Gaines
BOSTON — NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco told a Senate Commerce Committee field hearing Monday that, while there is a "long way to go" in rebuilding trust with the fishing community, "we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel."
But, except perhaps for her assistant administrator Eric Schwaab — who sat next to Lubchenco during an often tense 2 1/2-hour State House hearing organized by Sen. John Kerry — there was little evidence that anyone else either on the panel of six federal lawmakers or among stakeholder-witnesses spied the same light.
Congressmen John Tierney, Barney Frank and Sen. Scott Brown spoke of Lubchenco and her administration as a virtual lost cause — both before and after she and Schwaab departed the State House hearing room just before Brian Rothschild, the distinguished scientist at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, delivered his statement at the end of the second panel.
Lubchenco and Schwaab had made up the first panel.
Even Kerry, who used the hearing to organize a private NOAA and stakeholders summit conference to be scheduled, acknowledged afterward, "This is very frustrating."
But Kerry said he believed it should be possible in short order take three important steps forward:
More frequent stock assessments, with the goal of conducting them yearly for the key stocks, rather than the current two- and three-year cycles or more;
Liberalizing the 10 percent limit on rolling over uncaught allocations into the next fishing year; and,
Getting an emergency declaration from NOAA that could open the door to increased allocations.
Lubchenco said the holdup on the emergency declaration was due to the failure of the administration of Gov. Deval Patrick to follow through with a more detailed economic impact analysis of the re-engineered groundfishery into a quasi commodities market.
She also said the New England Fishery Management Council was the impediment to liberalizing the 10 percent carry over limit on uncaught fish.
"To create trust," Sen. Mark Begich, the Alaska Democrat who chairs the subcommittee on oceans and fisheries, advised Lubchenco, "is about communication — at times more than you ever anticipated."
'Change in leadership'
Tierney, who represents Cape Ann, said the fastest way to change NOAA's culture was "a change in leadership."
"Maybe we can get somebody in there with some empathy," he said.
Frank, who along with Tierney, first called for Lubchenco's removal in more than a year ago, said he agrees with Brown and the fishing industry that Lubchenco's NOAA is "hostile" to the industry.
Referring to Lubchenco's written testimony, which argued that the catch share sector system was working, Frank said, "Her statement is almost self-congratulatory and what we heard from everyone else is starkly different. She cherry-picked the statistics.
"Most agencies are pro the industry they regulate," he said. "I can think of only two that hold their industry guilty until proved innocent — the Drug Enforcement Administration and NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service)."
NMFS is headed by Schwaab, who was chosen by Lubchenco after she passed on Rothschild, Frank and much of the industry's first choice.
Kirk notes IG's presence
Sitting in the back of the hearing room was Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser, who has been urged by Mayors Carolyn Kirk of Gloucester and Scott Lang of New Bedford to begin an investigation of alleged improper influence by non-government organizations, especially the Environmental Defense Fund, on rule-making by NOAA and the regional fishery management council.
"I'm glad the IG was here," Kirk said after the hearing.
Brown cited a recent private two-hour meeting with 16 NGOs that Lubchenco and Schwaab attended as an example of the bias in decision-making.
He described Lubchenco's testimony as "the political 'hoojie woojie.'"
"The only thing coming at the end of the tunnel is a train," Brown said. "The relationship is beyond repair."
Lubchenco said that, based on a study she commissioned from daily schedules, she has spent 40 hours meeting with representatives of the industry against the one three hour meeting with the greens, which was reported in the Times last month.
After the hearing, Lang added his voice to the chorus, saying he considered Lubchenco to have just completed "a performance" in the dramatic sense.
"If she is not replaced," he said, "she becomes the No. 1 issue" in the upcoming election.
"Everything is fine, while Rome is burning," Lang added sarcastically.
Except for Brown, all members of the congressional panel, which also included Congressman William Keating, are Democrats.
Lubchenco flew back to Washington after leaving in mid-hearing for what aides said was a meeting.
A request for her schedule for the day was ignored.
Instead, Justin Kenney, NOAA's press secretary, issued a statement saying, "Dr. Lubchenco flew to Boston Sunday night, testified at the hearing this morning, answered every question, and then stayed for the opening remarks of the second panel."
Lang and others saw it differently.
"I'd like to know what meeting she had to get back to," Lang said.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.