Thus far, the Trump administration has pursued an agenda that has alarmed scientists and environmentalists, including the recent decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement. The administration has also been slow to appoint scientific leadership, both in the White House and across federal agencies.
But the appointment of fisheries biologist Chris Oliver to lead NOAA Fisheries — the agency within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that is charged with sustainable management of commercial fisheries worth more than $140 billion — represents a striking departure from the Trump administration’s scientific and environmental personnel and policy choices.
Oliver has worked as the executive director of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council since 2002. He has won the praise of both conservation groups and industry.
The position he will assume is one of the most important science, environment and natural resource management positions in the federal government. Its responsibilities include not only fisheries management but also conservation of marine species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. NOAA Fisheries operates offices and research stations in 15 states and territories and employs more than 3,000 people.
Although NOAA Fisheries may not have as high a national profile as the Environmental Protection Agency, it plays a critical role in managing some of the most important natural resources in the United States.
“As the primary federal agency dealing with conservation and management of marine fisheries and many of the marine mammals, it is important that NOAA Fisheries manages those resources sustainably and based on sound science,” said Steve McMullin, president-elect of the American Fisheries Society, a group of fisheries science and management professionals.
Environmentalists and fishermen were following this appointment nervously. A mismanaged NOAA Fisheries could do severe and long-lasting environmental harm to U.S. marine and coastal waters, and economic harm to the millions of Americans who depend on those ecosystems.
Overfishing, which NOAA Fisheries is tasked with avoiding, is a major threat to biodiversity, global food security and the fishing sector. When the once-thought-inexhaustible Canadian cod stocks collapsed in the 1990s from overfishing, tens of thousands of fishermen were put out of work, and hundreds of communities were devastated. Worldwide, 31 percent of all global fisheries are considered overfished, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In contrast, NOAA Fisheries has been successful at ending overfishing in U.S. waters, and science-based management has resulted in 40 once-overfished U.S. fish stocks being declared rebuilt.
The ocean conservation nonprofit sector, which has been strongly critical of the Trump administration, is praising this appointment. “Chris Oliver brings years of past experience working with fishermen, conservation groups and scientists, and a deep understanding of the practices and importance of science and ecosystem based management to the federal fisheries arena,” said Chris Dorsett, vice president of conservation policy at the Ocean Conservancy, a leading marine conservation nonprofit.
The seafood industry, which called for Oliver’s appointment in January in what was called “a nearly unprecedented display of unanimity,” is also pleased. “We are extremely supportive and excited about Chris’s appointment because he brings to NOAA Fisheries the skills and experience necessary to affect positive change during the challenging times that lie ahead,” said Lori Steele, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association.
“It isn’t often that the U.S. seafood industry unites together to support an appointment, but it was easy, thanks in large party to Chris’s experience and long-standing reputation as a fair, honest and successful leader in fisheries management,” she said.
“I am delighted that Chris has been well received by the fishing community in his new position,” said Wilbur Ross, the Secretary of Commerce, in a statement provided to the Post. “I have the utmost confidence that he will do a great job working with stakeholders to manage our nation’s vital fisheries – that’s why I recommended him to the president.”
It is perhaps not surprising that NOAA Fisheries is an exception to the Trump administration’s otherwise controversial science and environment agenda. Sustainable fisheries management has a history of broad bipartisan support, and both industry and environmental groups want to ensure that overfishing is avoided.
In a time when the national political climate is opposed to perceived faraway regulators, NOAA’s system is an interesting case study in engaging local stakeholders in the management process. Under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, fisheries management decisions in the United States are made by eight regional Fisheries Management Councils, including the North Pacific council, which Oliver ran for more than a decade. These councils may include representatives from state government agencies, academia, the fishing industry and environmental nonprofits, as well as representatives from NOAA Fisheries.
NOAA Fisheries will face many challenges in the coming days. Fishing industry representatives note that 90 percent of seafood eaten in the United States is imported, often from nations less careful about sustainable fisheries than the United States, resulting in a $13 billion deficit in seafood trade.
Meanwhile, environmental groups are raising the alarm about overly high fishing quotas for red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, a decision made shortly before Oliver’s appointment.
NOAA itself, of which NOAA Fisheries is only one component, does not have an administrator yet — something that also has scientists worried. But Oliver, at least, appears to have everyone on his side.
Correction: This article previously stated that Oliver had worked as executive director of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council since 1990. Actually he held the post beginning in 2002.