A Turning Point for New England Groundfish Fishery: Jane Lubchenco sends a clear message

Julie Wormser, New England Regional Director for the Environmental Defense Fund oceans program, writes about her attendance and NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco’s presence at the New England Fishery Management Council meeting on April 8th.

April 8, 2009, Mystic, CT —Sally McGee, Emilie Litsinger and I got to witness something pretty wonderful today.  Jane Lubchenco came to the New England Fishery Management Council meeting to announce the immediate release of $16 million to the groundfish fishery to help move the fishery to “sector” catch share management by providing funding for cooperative research to help fishermen get through a tough fishing year with very strict limits on fishing effort. 

This came on the heels of Monday’s announcement of a final Interim Rule for groundfish that was a significant improvement both over the draft rule and a threatened legislative alternative introduced by some members of the New England congressional delegation. 

The meeting started at 8:30 am, with the room unusually full for that early hour.  The previous days had been crackling with speculation around the region about the reason for her visit. After brief introductions, Dr. Lubchenco thanked everyone for allowing her the time to speak to them. She described the main components of the new fishing rules and then said that she came to the council meeting with two clear messages. 

First, that NOAA would commit $16 million this year toward a new future for New England’s fisheries (in this case, groundfish, but also more broadly).  Second, she put the room on notice—Council members, agency staff, industry and other stakeholders—that we all needed to step up and move away from crisis management toward a lasting solution—catch shares.

“We need a rapid transition to sectors and catch shares,” she explained.  “Catch shares are a powerful tool to getting to sustainable fisheries and profitability.  I challenge you to deliver on this in Amendment 16, to include measures to end overfishing.  I will commit the resources to my staff to do their part to ensure Amendment 16 is passed in June.

“We are shining a light on your efforts and we will track your progress.  There is too much at stake to allow delay and self-interest to prevent sectors and ultimately catch shares from being implemented.” 

She finished by thanking everyone for the “many interactions I’ve had with all of you”—this with a chuckle of acknowledgement that she had spent the bulk of the first two weeks of her new job on this problem.  “This is a dialogue, a cooperative exchange.  We all have the same long term goals in mind.”

Three seconds of silence followed while everyone let what had been said and done during Dr. Lubchenco’s first week on the job sink in.  Then the room slowly turned to resounding applause.  During times of significant restrictions on the fishing industry, a meeting like this normally would have been a scene of finger-pointing, name calling and sometimes even chair throwing and table tossing.  Nothing could have been further from what transpired on this day.  Dr. Lubchenco brought a strong leadership message.

Not only was she in charge, but she gave the region an overwhelming sense of relief.  Hearing it directly from the highest leadership position in NOAA, everyone in the room knows that there is someone in charge who truly understands the problem with fisheries from a biological perspective and who has great sympathy for those who make a living at sea.

Today Jane Lubchenco rewrote the future of the groundfish fishery in New England.  Her work set us all up in an excellent position to permanently transform New England’s groundfish fishery from worst to first in the next few years.  We are now focused on capitalizing on her explosive start as NOAA Administrator to take full advantage of her skilled leadership to speed the transition to catch shares for not only New England groundfish but the rest of this region’s fisheries.  What a glorious day.

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