NOAA needs leader who can talk to fishermen

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco resigned Wednesday.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco resigned Wednesday.

Jane Lubchenco’s resignation as administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency responsible for regulating the fishing industry, was greeted with bipartisan celebration by Massachusetts lawmakers. Republican Senator Scott Brown said good riddance to her “job-killing” limits on fishing. Democratic Representative John Tierney, whose North Shore district includes Gloucester, said he “welcomed” the resignation. “Our fishing community has suffered,” he said.

That may be unfair. A Harvard-educated environmental scientist, Lubchenco was a highly qualified leader whose often-well-reasoned policies were undermined by a notable lack of political savvy.

Now that Lubchenco’s critics have gotten their way, however, the question is whether NOAA can build a two-way street between the scientific research community and the long-suffering Northeast groundfishing industry. Many of the fishing limits NOAA imposed during her tenure, including next year’s impending major cut for cod, were legitimate efforts to preserve endangered fish stocks that were based on the available scientific assessments. But Lubchenco was never able to deliver the message in a way that empathized with the legitimate plight of multi-generation fishing families who felt the government was heartlessly driving them out of business.


Still, it should be said that the Massachusetts congressional delegation often did not help matters by berating Lubchenco to the point that it was obvious they were grandstanding to burnish their image as fighters for the fishermen. The original appointment of Lubchenco, a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was noble in its intention, an effort by the Obama administration to restore science to the forefront of NOAA’s mission after the Bush administration often ignored it. The task now falls to President Obama to appoint an administrator who not only knows the science, but can talk about conservation policies in ways that fishermen can respect.