24 October 2011

Bipartisan Criticism of NOAA Fishery Policies

"Your testimony cherry picks, you include what's good, but leave out what's not good"
The quote above comes from Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) criticizing the testimony of Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of NOAA and pictured testifying above, on the impacts of federal fishery policies. In fact, a bipartisan group of members of the US Congress have called for Lubchenco's resignation.

At issue are the effects of NOAA policies for management of fisheries on the economic health of the region's fishing economy. Lubchenco has alleged success and the locals say she is wrong. The local media sums up the issue as follows:
But the thumbs-down [Republican Senator] Brown gave Lubchenco here Saturday — before about 100 onlookers — underscored a pre-existing bipartisan judgment against her by Democratic Congressmen John Tierney and Barney Frank who represent the ports of the Gloucester and New Bedford, respectively.

A third congressman who works closely with Tierney and Frank on fisheries issues and shares their view of Lubchenco as a failure is Republican Walter Jones of North Carolina.

That trio first asked for her removal from office in the summer of 2010. And a fifth thumbs down to Lubchenco has been delivered by New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang, with the final straw coming out her appearance before the Senate Commerce Committee, meeting on Oct. 3 in Boston.

Lang, along with Brown, Tierney and Frank described her performance as patronizing and dishonest, after she credited her administration of the fisheries as restorative to the resource and the industry.

Kirk, a Democrat, has taken chosen a different tact — focusing her disappointment on President Obama and urging him to come to Gloucester to see for himself the harm done by administration fisheries policies.

Facing a cenotaph with the names of the more than 5,000 Gloucester fishermen lost at sea over the centuries, the Man at the Wheel — erected in 1923 to celebrate Gloucester's and the U.S. commercial fishing industry's 300th anniversary — made a fitting backdrop for Brown's call.

"Just a few weeks ago, Administrator Lubchenco told us ... in Boston that the fishing industry is on the rebound," Brown said in explaining his decision. "That incredible statement demonstrated a total lack of understanding of the situation in Gloucester, New Bedford and across New England."

He also pointed to her decision to leave the hearing before the last of the witnesses — distinguished academic, marine scientist and critic of Lubchenco policies Brian Rothschild — began testifying as a sign of her disrespect for fishermen. 
Rothschild's testimony can be found here in PDF, in which he provides a scathing evaluation of NOAA's performance:
It appears that fisheries management is being prosecuted at a great cost to the Nation in terms of jobs, food security, and welfare. There have been many suggestions of ways to get the system back on track. But these suggestions have never seen the light of day. We conclude that the agency, when it does respond, reiterates the problems rather than provides solutions . . .
The management of the nation's fisheries by NOAA is an important policy issue of national importance. The performance of NOAA deserves a wider examination, especially by experts who are not in the region and thus a bit further from the local politics of the issue.

The issue of NOAA and New England fisheries is obviously bipartisan, and yet the national media and especially those who focus on science and the environment appear to have completely missed this issue (please do correct me if I am mistaken). Is this another instance of willful blindness when it comes to issues of science and politics under the Obama Administration? (One can imagine the froth had these exact events transpired under GWB.)  If so, then such blindness merely reinforces a partisan divide rather than opening up these complex issues to a deeper discussion.

I will email some journalist colleagues for their views, and report back.

DISCLAIMER: I am a Fellow of CIRES here at the University of Colorado, a NOAA-afilliated research institute.


  1. There may be politicization of science going on, but I'm not convinced it's Lubchenco that's doing the politicizing. She may be, but from what I've seen most of the criticism is driven by particular fishing interests in the northeast and recreational fishing interests in the southeast that are unahppy with the distributional effects of various reforms. That those unhappy with potential fishery reforms are on both sides of the aisle don't tell us very much, and I'm skeptical of anyone who would claim that catch shares are the cause of fishery decline, particularly given A) the extensive empirical literature on the benefits of catch shares, and B) the reliance on a witness who just a few years ago was blaming fishery problems on climate change.

    Jonathan H. Adler

  2. In the end, it doesn't matter who is doing the politicizing. Roger's main point has always been that politicians do what politicians do -- whether they are Democrats or Republicans. If they don't like the information they are getting from scientists (or economists or sociologists or criminologists, et al) they push back. They push back to protect their constituents, donors, supporters -- basically their own political backsides.

    This is the real inconvenient truth and Roger deserves a lot of credit for making it one of his priorities and regardless of his own political leanings -- that it ain't about the truth. It's all about the politics and getting elected. The problem comes when scientists allow their partisan feelings to fool themselves into thinking that the "other side's politicians" are somehow different from their own because of the different letter besides the name. Note -- not all pols are political animals to the same degree. Some are more genuinely interested in good policy than others. But experience teaches that the "animals" are on both sides and the willingness to put aside raw political calculation is correlated to the degree they presume their seat is safe and have no urges for higher office.

  3. Lubchenco has also apparently made some effort to disguise her transition from advocacy to government. He NOAA resume omits to mention she was previously vice chair of the Environmental Defense Fund's board. EDF was a heavy promoter of the US catch-shares program before Lubchenco came on board as NOAA administrator. Now she's implementing the program for which she previously advocated.

    Catch-shares is also enormously unpopular in Florida. Our local fish store at Port Canaveral has impassioned diatribes against her posted on the walls. At the same time, from what I've read, the US implementation of the program is greatly superior to the EU's fisheries policy.

  4. Here's a link to her testimony.

    Her critic said:
    It appears that fisheries management is being prosecuted at a great cost to the Nation in terms of jobs, food security, and welfare.

    Well, it seems axiomatic to me that fisheries recovery will require a cutback on fishing---and that imposes costs on the fishing industry.

  5. Roger - it's great to see you turn your searchlight on this critical topic. Quick comments:

    ** Assigning private property rights to fisheries seems to have been more effective than traditional "management" schemes. New England used a form of "derby fishing". The fisherman's incentive was to kill as many fish as he could within the alloted time window and other constraints. This was destructive to populations and often very dangerous for the fisherman (if you can only fish one day out of 365, you go out in horrible weather).

    ** The schemes I know more about (New Zealand, Australia) are Individual Transferable Quotas, or ITQ. These schemes create a powerful incentive for the fisherman to maximize the value of this quota (property right) which generally encourages protecting future yields. The New England "catch shares" scheme seems to be a collective variant, where the property right (quota) is assigned to a collective of fishermen.

    ** That the resistance to Catch Shares is "bipartisan" means little to me. I don't see any way to explain worldwide depleted fisheries other than the political strength of the fishing interests. Perhaps not as powerful as public employee unions, but the results attest to their power.

    ** You cannot manage what you do not measure. Measuring fisheries is expensive, with too-little obvious value to ordinary voters. I'll speculate that NOAA's budget for fisheries monitoring is not nearly adequate to "prove the science" of optimal quotas.

    ** You asked about national media coverage. There have been some useful articles - examples:

    Can Catch Shares Prevent Fisheries Collapse?

    Nature News -- Fisheries: What’s the catch?

    Economics of Overexploitation Revisited

    Incentive-Based Approaches to Sustainable Fisheries [PDF 2005 ANU paper]

    and a couple of my posts with additional links, John Tierney's series in New York Times Magazine:

    ITQ: A Win-Win for Fish and Fishermen

    ITQ: A Tale of Two Fisheries

  6. As a resident of Massachusetts, I can tell you that if the boat captains had their way, they'd quickly by fighting each other to catch the last fish.

    Regarding the loss of jobs, that comes from efficiency, no? We could 'save jobs' by requiring road construction companies to use pick and shovel on our highways, instead of road graders.

    Catch shares is a system coming straight from the environmental lobby, and they don't give a damn about jobs or the interests of the industry. No surprise there. Let's be clear, though - those Massachusetts politicians are bought and owned by the fishing industry. Barney Frank doesn't give a damn about the good of the environment, or the good of the fishing community, for that fact. He just wants to get re-elected, so he'll run interference for his constituents. Let's not pretend that these pols are fighting the good fight. This is naked self-interest on their parts.