By Becky W. Evans
For the past year, commercial fishing communities across the country have been waiting as Dr. Jane Lubchenco, the chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, vetted candidates to direct NOAA’s Fisheries Service, which manages fish stocks in U.S. waters.
The West Coast fishing industry rooted for Arne Fuglvog, a commercial fisherman from Alaska who works as a legislative assistant for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. In July, Fuglvog dropped his name from consideration, citing conflicts presented by the long vetting process.
On the East Coast, fishermen joined U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., in advocating for Dr. Brian Rothschild, a fisheries scientist and former NOAA Fisheries policy advisor who collaborates with the fishing industry in his work at UMass Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science and Technology in New Bedford, Mass.
Lubchenco finally made the appointment this month, choosing Eric Schwabb to head up the fisheries agency. Schwabb, who has spent the past 23 years working in various roles (most recently as Deputy Secretary) for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, has the “experience and proven leadership to bring a fresh perspective” to managing the agency, Lubchenco wrote in a Feb 10 statement announcing his appointment.
In a press teleconference last week, Schwabb said he plans to adopt the same strategy he used to manage Maryland’s natural resources: listening to and communicating with fishermen and scientists to “find the right balance between the use of resources and ensuring that they are sustainable for future years and future generations. It’s been my life’s work.”
Winning the support and trust of commercial fishermen will prove difficult, especially in New England where the industry was surprised and upset by Lubchenco’s decision to overlook Rothschild and appoint someone lacking a background in fisheries science.
Schwabb, who holds a bachelor’s in biology and a master’s in geography and environmental planning, admitted he is “just a regular guy,” not a scientist. But he said his management experience speaks for itself. He has directed Maryland’s Fisheries Service, Forest Service and its Forest, Wildlife and Heritage Service. Outside of state work, he served as the resource director for the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies in Washington, D.C.
“I think he’s got good experience for the job,” said Lee Crockett, fisheries policy director for the Pew Environment Group. “He’s had a long career here in Maryland as a natural resources manager and he’s worked in enforcement. I am more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.”
“I don’t think you necessarily need a scientist in that job…being a scientist doesn’t mean you are a good manager,” Crockett said.
Schwabb takes the helm from acting NOAA Fisheries chief Dr. Jim Balsiger at a time when fishermen’s frustrations with federal fisheries rules have reached their boiling point. Thousands of commercial and recreational fishermen are expected to rally this week on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, where they will urge Congress to revamp federal fisheries law, known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act. They claim the law, which was last revised in 2007, is too rigid. They fear the mandatory 10-year timeline for rebuilding depleted fish stocks will devastate the industry with massive cuts in fishing effort. Environmental groups, such as Pew, contend that the timeline is necessary and will benefit the commercial fishing industry in the long run when stocks are more robust.
Schwabb faces the added challenge of improving the image and actions of NOAA Fisheries Enforcement following a scathing review by the Commerce Department’s Inspector General’s office last month. “I look forward to beginning immediately to implement the strong game plan Dr. Lubchenco has laid out in restoring confidence in fisheries law enforcement,” Schwabb said, noting his former experience as a natural resources police officer in Maryland.
Lubchenco has outlined Schwabb’s immediate priorities as: “improving outreach and relationships with recreational and commercial fishermen, better aligning federal and regional fisheries priorities, restoring confidence in fisheries law enforcement, and promoting management approaches that will achieve both sustainable fisheries and vibrant coastal communities.”
Rothschild said it will take “almost a superhuman person” to deal with the “huge, huge problems” plaguing commercial fisheries management. Though he didn’t get the job, he said he feels good knowing that he made it clear he was willing to serve the country.
“Basically the political system felt that someone else was better and that is their prerogative,” he said.
For now, Rothschild is busy planning a March 8 fishing summit in New Bedford. “We are going to discuss many of the issues of concern to people on the street, ranging from catch shares and sectors to enforcement to the council to alternative ways of thinking about fisheries management.”