Eric Schwaab, NOAA's new fisheries director, faces familiar challenges

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 2010

Eric Schwaab, the new head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service, will face skeptical fishermen, impatient environmentalists and a host of other cranky constituencies in the job he started Tuesday.

It's familiar territory.

Schwaab has spent the bulk of his career at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, where he began as a Natural Resources Police officer 27 years ago. He rose through the ranks to direct three of the department's branches -- the Forest Service; the Forest, Wildlife and Heritage Service; and the Fisheries Service. Throughout, he dealt with warring factions on such contentious questions as how to manage the area's blue crab and striped bass fisheries.

In a telephone call with reporters Tuesday, Schwaab said he hopes to "promote management that builds sustainable fisheries and vibrant coastal communities. However, as you look around the country, there are significant challenges in that regard."

Schwaab experienced those kinds of challenges firsthand as he sought to restore Maryland's crab fishery without exacting too heavy an economic toll on local watermen. The blue crab population now seems to be recovering slowly, after years of heavy fishing.

"We haven't always agreed with each other, but we've always been able to work things out," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

In the early part of the decade, Simns recalled, Schwaab angered local fishermen by insisting on stricter catch quotas to reduce blue crab mortality by 15 percent.

"We were able to talk to him and get the same results, [so that we could] still save the crabs without hurting the watermen too bad," Simns said. "He can deal with people; he can talk to them."

Robert Glenn, who got to know Schwaab when Glenn served as executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, praised him for figuring out how "to balance the science with the implications on people's lives" when making decisions about commercial and recreational fishing.

"He's fair, and he listens to all sides," Glenn said, adding that when it came to setting quotas for the state's crab fishery, Schwaab "followed the science. He looked to the biologists, instead of the political class."

After the controversy over crab quotas, Schwaab spent four years in the private sector, serving as resource director for the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies from 2003 to 2007. He then returned to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources as the deputy secretary.

Schwaab -- who said he aims "to balance long-term sustainability and short-term economic realities" -- takes the helm at a time when some commercial and recreational fishing interests are increasingly critical of the government's ocean-management policies. A large group of these critics will march on the Capitol on Wednesday in a protest they've dubbed United We Fish, aimed at rolling back a series of fishing reforms that the Bush administration pushed to enact along with a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers in 2006. The restrictions were designed to protect depleted species.

Bob Jones, executive director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association, said NOAA officials have not listened to the concerns of his group's members, who are demanding more flexibility in how many fish they can catch at a given time and more transparency in how federal policies are set. "It's no more than what the government should be giving us anyway," he said.

The Ocean Conservancy, a nonpartisan advocacy group, ranks the nation's eight fishery-management councils on the basis of whether the stocks they oversee are overfished. In 2008, five of the eight received failing grades, and only the north Pacific council, which oversees fish in Alaska's waters, received an A.

Chris Dorsett, the Ocean Conservancy's director of fish conservation and management, said Schwaab "will face some long-standing challenges in finally ending years of overfishing and putting our nation's fisheries on the road to recovery," but added that the 2006 regulations should help him accomplish the goal. "It's time for science-based management to help rebuild our fisheries, our coastal economies and the health of the ocean."

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, who selected Schwaab, said she is confident that her new appointee can meet the challenges before him. In a statement, she called him "a creative and proven manager, consensus builder and leader."

And as the nation's top fishery manager, Simns noted, he'll need plenty of consensus-building skills to execute his duties: "He's going to be in a job where not everyone's going to be able to agree with him."

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