Dr. Lubchenco and the Salmon
by Editorial Board
New York Times, April 10, 2009
Jane Lubchenco, the new leader of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will have more to say than anyone else in Washington about the health of fish species in America's coastal waters. A career marine ecologist, she is widely regarded as tough, smart, respectful of science and deeply committed to the survival and growth of America's fisheries.
She will need all of those qualities and more when she confronts what could be her first major test - possibly the most vexing of her tenure - devising a workable and broadly acceptable solution to the grave threats facing the salmon runs of the Pacific Northwest.
In a matter of weeks, a federal judge in Portland, Ore., will rule on the adequacy of the Bush administration's last recovery plan for a dozen or so endangered or threatened salmon runs in the Columbia-Snake River Basin.
Judge James Redden has already rejected two earlier plans. He tossed out a Clinton plan because he found its prescriptions too vague and predictions about the recovery rate for salmon species too speculative. He then tossed out a Bush plan because it did too little to increase water flows over the dams to help move young salmon downstream to the ocean. It was also illegal: The Endangered Species Act requires the recovery of a species, whereas the Bush plan promised little more than allowing the fish to go extinct at a slower rate.
This latest plan is an improvement, but it asks only that the fish be "trending toward recovery" - which could mean almost anything, and certainly does not point toward full recovery. It is opposed by environmental groups and the state of Oregon, from which Dr. Lubcheco hails. It also is unlikely to pass muster with the judge. That would set the stage for intervention by the Obama administration and, one hopes, a much better recovery plan. As part of that plan, we urge the administration to consider removing the four dams on the Lower Snake River, which many scientists see as critical to the species' recovery. The Clinton plan held open that possibility; the Bush plan did not.
Encouragingly, Dr. Lubchenco has already shown a capacity to confront tough problems. Last week, she asked the hidebound and suspicious fishermen of New England to entertain a radical shift in the way they manage their fisheries. Instead of the current race to catch the last fish, Dr. Lubchenco is calling on them instead to submit to an ownership system known as "catch shares" under which they would be given a fixed share of the fishery and, with it, a strong financial interest in having the fishery survive and grow.
The idea has worked well in several countries, like Australia. It also captured the attention of Congress and the Bush administration. Getting New England's traditionalists to accept a new idea will not be easy, but it is necessary. New England's fisheries suffer from overfishing, the Pacific Northwest's from habitat loss. What both places suffer from is a failure to act.
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