WITHIN DAYS of her confirmation as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Jane Lubchenco was meeting with New England fishermen to get their views on one of the thorniest decisions she will have to make: whether to back an extremely tight federal limit on commercial fishing for the season that begins May 1.
The fishermen oppose the rule proposed by NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service. Concerned that many groundfish species have been overfished, the service is calling for one-year restrictions that come close to shutting the fishery down.
The rule is designed to give groundfish stocks, including cod and flounder, a chance to rebound before the introduction in 2010 of a new way to manage the fishery. Until now, federal regulators have tried to limit overfishing with limits on gear, closed areas, daily maximums, and allowable days-at-sea. Under the new system, many fishermen will belong to local cooperatives that will get a set percentage quota of an allowable catch for the entire fishery. Marine Fisheries scientists will limit the total catch to the amount they believe is sustainable.
For this season, though, Lubchenco should support the tough restrictions. She could offset some of the financial loss to the industry by paying fishermen for their work in making the transition to the new management system.
Two pluses of the new "catch-share" management are that it is safer - fishermen are under no pressure to fill their quota in bad weather - and it provides a strong incentive to fishermen to help the stocks flourish. Each collective's annual quota grows as the total population of a species recovers.
Lubchenco has said "the best science" would guide her decisions at NOAA. The science pointing to overfished groundfish stocks is solid, having just been confirmed in a special report by the Commerce Department's inspector general. The four senators from Massachusetts and Maine - Edward Kennedy, John Kerry, Olympia Snowe, and Susan Collins - called for the review last year after fishermen complained that the fisheries service's estimates of groundfish populations were too pessimistic. While the inspector general called on NOAA to improve its communication of research results and strengthen its relationship with the industry, it also confirmed that the agency is using the best available information to guide its decisions.
The new management plan for the 2010 season offers hope of putting this important fishery on a safer and more supportable footing. The trick is getting from here to there in a way that sustains both fish stocks and fishermen. A tight limit on this year's catch with federal transition funds to help replace lost fishing revenues is the answer.