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Changing Climate: Ecologist now leads NOAA

Pity the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It has certainly suffered insults over the years, beginning in 1970 when President Nixon decided to tuck the newly formed agency inside the Commerce Department. Why? Because he was miffed at Walter Hickle, his man in charge of the Interior Department.

The oceans and atmospheric agency has grown over the years to make up 60% of the Commerce Department budget, and federal officials have resisted calls to make it a separate agency. Its multi-syllabic name commonly gets shorted to an acronym. But even the colloquial NOAA gets lampooned, as shorthand for "No Organization at All," or "National Organization for the Advancement of Acronyms."

The slights grew more serious during the presidency of George W. Bush. Scientists and policy wonks working on global warming or protecting rare and endangered whales and fish increasingly found their work questioned, delayed or altered because it ran afoul of official White House policy.

Jane_lubchenco Now it appears that NOAA may shed its reputation as the Rodney Dangerfield of federal agencies. President Obama made a point of appointing the new head of NOAA along with other key science advisors. The U.S. Senate confirmed Jane Lubchenco as the new NOAA administrator on Thursday, making her the first marine ecologist to ever run the agency that oversees America's vast oceans.

Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, underscored that point in a statement released late Thursday: "Dr. Lubchenco joins a distinguished group of scientific leaders in the Obama administration that will ensure that science plays its proper role in shaping policy."

Besides her own research at Oregon State University, Lubchenco has been a champion for scientists to speak out.  She also believes the federal government hasn't done enough to restore America's depleted fisheries.

"The reason that there are fewer and fewer fishing jobs is that there are fewer and fewer fish," she said in an interview. "If we keep going down that path, we will end up with next to nothing."

One tool, she said, is to set aside the marine equivalent of land-based national parks where hunting is forbidden. Scientific studies show that fish rebound in these protected areas; their bounty of sea life spills over into adjacent fishing grounds. Clever fishermen quickly learn this. They know where to fish: the boundary of the reserve.

In two sweeping actions during his eight years in office, Bush added more square miles of undersea protected areas than any president in history — all of it around the Northwest Hawaii Islands and other remote islands, atolls and reefs in the Pacific. He did it all with the stroke of a pen, using the Antiquities Act of 1906.

Lubchenco said the Obama administration is not likely to follow that go-it-alone approach. Instead, she expects to move forward in a more inclusive and transparent way, inviting fishermen and others to have a say in what areas should be set off limits.

Again, she said, science is the best guide. And the science shows that the popular parks are the most successful. Their restrictions on fishing or hunting are easiest to enforce.

— Kenneth R. Weiss

Photo: Jane Lubchenco inspects a tide pool. Credit: NOAA

 
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Jane Lubchenko and Steven Chao (Secretary of Energy) are two great examples of a President willing to give science a seat at the table. George Bush set the environment back decades. The only thing I felt he did right, however, was signing the legislation on 1/6/09 (my birthday coincidentally) to create a protected marine reserve larger than any president before him. I agree, however, the fisherman should be included and also educated. In Tonga, I recently met some former peace corps volunteers who now work with Tongan fisherman teaching them how to protect their business by not overfishing. Many places where I've gone scuba diving (Bonaire, Belize and Tonga to name a few) have created marine reserves b/c they value and want to protect their coral reefs. The LA Times articles in 2006 about our altered (i.e. endangered) oceans woke me up to the fact that we have done little in the U.S. to protect our marine life and ourselves. See: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/oceans/la-oceans-series,0,7842752.special

Kuddos to the Obama administration for putting the adults back in charge.

Government must act as an intelligent foil to balance the interests of business.
For too many years purely economic concerns were the basis for any decision-making process in Washington. There is a different concept that says we don't have to screw it all up now, we can save some for our kids to screw up in the future. This is a good idea. Countries in Europe have been able to manage their resources in a sustainable way, and the sooner we get on this program the better off everything will be.

Thank goodness. Sanity appears to be returning to government on this issue of environmental responsibility. If the natural world goes, so do we all. This ain't "tree-huggin'" talk, it's the cold, hard reality. Human civilization is as connected and reliant on the birds and the bees and the fish as any other living creature on this earth.


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