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June 16, 2010

Q & A: Eric Schwaab - New Head of NMFS

This Sport Fishing newsmaker interview offers Mr. Schwaab the chance to share with the recreational-fishing community the philosophy and approach he brings to NMFS as its new chief...

After 11 months with an interim chief at the helm of the National Marine Fisheries Service, Eric Schwaab was named to that position in February by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Schwaab's official title is assistant administrator for fisheries; he reports to NOAA head, Jane Lubchenco.

Much of Schwaab's 28-year career in resource management was spent at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in many roles, including director of the Maryland Fisheries Service. From 2003 to 2007, he served as resource director for the National Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, then returned to the Maryland DNR as deputy secretary. Schwaab has also served as a member of the federal Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee.

Since this information is a matter of public record, recreational fishermen may have an idea who Eric Schwaab is, but so far very little insight into what this leader of the country's top marine-fish-management agency thinks. This Sport Fishing newsmaker interview offers Mr. Schwaab the chance to share with the recreational-fishing community the philosophy and approach he brings to NMFS as its new chief. - Ed.

SF: I appreciate you taking the time to respond to some of the many questions and concerns widely shared by anglers and, in general, the recreational-fishing community. To simplify that inclusive term, I'll abbreviate it as "RFC" henceforth. I want to begin with a few general questions and then proceed to more specific concerns.

General Questions

SF: Why you? Why did Jane Lubchenco [head of NOAA and now your boss] pick Eric Schwaab for this job over all other candidates?

ES: I believe that Dr. Lubchenco saw in me a proven natural-resource manager with a record of working with scientists, agency staff, and a wide range of other partners and interest groups to address important natural-resource policy challenges.

SF: You may have read Sport Fishing's April editorial, "Welcome to the Hottest Seat in Town." The "hot seat" I talk about is yours, as the new NMFS chief, Mr. Schwaab. In the time that you've been chief of the National Marine Fisheries Service, how hot would you say the job has been?

ES: This is a time of great challenge for our oceans, their living resources and the nation's coastal communities. It's also a time of great opportunity. I knew coming in that the deadlines associated with ending overfishing and rebuilding fish stocks present some real short-term economic challenges for coastal communities. But I also know that we have a unique opportunity - now - to address those concerns without losing sight of the long-term goal of rebuilding sustainable fisheries that will ensure sustainable benefits for coastal communities, fishermen and future generations.

SF: Do you have any idea why Dr. Lubchenco waited nearly a year to appoint someone to lead the National Marine Fisheries Service?

ES: While this is not really a question I can directly answer, I can say that I appreciate that the process ultimately led to my appointment and hope time will prove that I was worth the wait.

SF: What do you see as your single-greatest challenge short-term?

ES: The single-greatest challenge short-term is meeting the deadlines associated with ending overfishing and rebuilding fish stocks. The deadlines that are required by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act present some real short-term economic challenges for coastal communities. As I said, our biggest challenge is to address those very real concerns without losing sight of the long-term goal of rebuilding sustainable fisheries that will yield sustainable benefits for coastal communities, fishermen and future generations.

SF: Which specific recreational fishery (in terms of species or area) do you feel is most in trouble at the moment?

ES: The answer to this question depends on your personal perspective. If you fish in the South Atlantic, you might say red snapper; if you fish in Alaska, you might say halibut; or you might say salmon if you are in California. The reality is that a number of cross-cutting issues can affect recreational fisheries around the nation. We are working to address these, including the quality, quantity and timeliness of data, the frequency of stock assessments, and better integration of social and economic data into management decisions. But our big long-term challenge in recreational fisheries is to figure out a way to satisfy the growing recreational-fishing demand without compromising our commitment to sustainable resources for future generations.

Questions on Specific Issues

SF: Flexibility - A major reason for the march of an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 commercial and recreational fishermen in Washington, D.C., in February was a call for more flexibility in fisheries management. The marchers called upon Congress to pass legislation ensuring flexibility in federally mandated rebuilding plans. From your perspective, would such legislation solve our current problems (e.g., widespread area closures) related to fisheries management?

ES: We understand the concern being felt in local fishing communities. But we also believe that the majority of overfished stocks can be rebuilt within the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act's mandated 10-year rebuilding. So far, with good science and the support of fishermen, sound management programs have successfully helped rebuild 16 previously overfished stocks and are helping make good progress in the majority of active rebuilding plans. The Magnuson-Stevens Act already does contain some of the flexibility we need for rebuilding stocks by allowing certain exceptions based on biology and other issues. Balancing rebuilding for the long-term health and benefits of coastal communities with the immediate economic effects remains a challenge for everyone involved in implementing Congress' mandates to end overfishing and rebuild stocks.

SF: Budget - One of the most-cited reasons for needing such flexibility to avoid closing large swaths of the ocean to sport fishing is that these are decisions based on rotten science; even NOAA admits it desperately needs far better data on recreational fisheries to manage them wisely and fairly. Given that need, what are your thoughts on NOAA's proposed FY2011 budget that will devote $36 million to catch-share development but no new funds to improve critical recreational-data collection to manage the nation's $100 billion coastal recreational fisheries? Will you be able to quickly begin improving NMFS data without additional funding allocated for that? And what are your priorities for allocating whatever budget NMFS does end up with?

ES: First, let me take issue with your use of the term "rotten science." We do have some problem areas - notably in recreational catch-and-effort data - and are taking aggressive steps and investing substantial resources to improve that situation. NOAA has made it an ongoing priority to improve the accuracy and timeliness of data on recreational fishing. We are doing this with the Marine Recreational Information Program, which includes the national saltwater angler registry that starts this year. This will help us have a more complete phone book of recreational anglers to improve surveys on catch and effort. Since FY2007, the funding for MRIP has gone from $1.7 to $9 million this year. That's a significant increase.

We also know that we could benefit from more frequent stock assessments and better data for many species, and are investing to address many of those concerns. We have exceptional scientists here at NOAA and many strong science partners who are working hard to conduct substantial cutting-edge, accurate and peer-reviewed work. We have expanded funding for annual stock assessments from $31.6 million in 2008 to $51.7 million in the president's proposed 2011 budget. Stock assessments in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico are a high priority for improvement in the Fisheries Service this year. We will spend in excess of $5 million specifically for stock assessments conducted by scientists at the Southeast Fisheries Science Center this year, with priorities being fishery independent surveys and improving stock assessments for reef fishes (snappers and groupers) in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. We will also be doing a new survey with red snapper fishermen off the South Atlantic Coast. Overall, the NOAA Fisheries Operations, Research and Facilities proposed budget for 2011 increased from $724.2 million in 2009 to $907.8 million. This $184 million increase across the agency's stewardship missions demonstrates that fisheries research and management have been, and continue to be, clear priorities for NOAA.

Catch-share funding is not requested at the expense of other fisheries research and management programs but is deserving of additional investment. Increased investment in improved management programs is every bit as important as investing in improved science. Either, alone, will not yield more sustainable fisheries. But better science, coupled with improved management systems, presents a way forward that we should all support.