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Changing Climate: Ecologist now leads NOAA

March 19, 2009 |  9:14 pm

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