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Interview: Schwaab Stands Ready for New Challenges in 2012

Eric Schwaab Eric Schwaab, Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries

Q: Do you have a personal connection to fishing and did it influence your career?
I’ve fished ever since I was a young boy. Fishing has always been an important way for me to get outdoors, and more recently it’s a great way to connect with family and friends. Growing up on the Chesapeake Bay and knocking around in the woods and streams of central Maryland had an impact on my career choice, but it wasn’t until I got into college and took a part time job at a local park that I rediscovered my affinity for being out in the natural world and working on challenging natural resource management issues.

Q: How are we doing meeting Congress’s goal in the Magnuson-Stevens Act to end overfishing and rebuild fish stocks?
The reauthorization of Magnuson by Congress in 2006, signed by the President in 2007, was an incredibly important act of Congress because it set firm deadlines for the agency to end overfishing, while affirming a process for working with fishermen through fishery management councils.  Here at the tail end of 2011, the hard work of the councils in putting in place catch limits and accountability measures is complete or nearing completion. We’ll be able to say we have catch limits and accountability measures that will have ended overfishing in federally managed stocks and also will establish rebuilding pathways where depleted stocks exist. Ultimately, we’ll have to measure that over  time to ensure those plans have yielded the expected outcomes.

Q: Once we end overfishing, what’s the next big challenge?
We like to talk about ending overfishing as turning a corner in fishery management in this country, turning a corner with respect to the health, sustainability and profitability of fish stocks. As with any corner, as you turn the corner you look ahead.  A growing challenge to the long-term sustainability of fish and other living resources is our need to better conserve and enhance fish habitat in coastal and ocean areas.

Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries, Eric Schwaab, and Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, join experts in the field to discuss fisheries closures during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon BP Oil Spill.

Q: We’re seeing unusual die-offs of dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico, seals in the Northeast and seals and walruses off Alaska. Are these die-offs connected?
We’re very concerned about the die offs in these three relatively distinct ecosystems and are individually investigating their possible causes. This is a high number of die-off events to be occurring simultaneously.  We don’t see any evidence that they are connected. However , it’s clear that marine mammals can be an important indicators of ocean health and to the extent we face significant ocean health challenges in different ecosystems here and around the world, it’s possible that some of what we’re seeing are independent reflections of some of those ocean stressors.

Q: What are some of the interesting ways that commercial and recreational fishermen are making a living or enjoying sportfishing while sustainably fishing?
We’ve been working a lot with fishermen not only on management but also in marketing. Locally designed and implemented catch share programs give fishermen the opportunity to catch their share of fish when it’s  most advantageous to them from a business perspective. They can avoid bad weather, maximize good market conditions, and avoid some of the more burdensome regulations that existed under input control systems, like days-at-sea management. A catch share system affords fishermen the opportunity to develop new markets and to bring fresh fish from the ocean to local or regional markets much more quickly. This is one example of an approach that adds value for fishermen, wholesalers, retailers and consumers. On the recreational side, one of the challenges we face is that there are a lot of people interested in recreational fishing and, even when fish stocks are fully rebuilt, controls are still needed. Because recreational fishermen often measure their value by time on the water more so than the volume of fish brought back to the dock, not that fish in the cooler aren’t important, we’ve been working with recreational fishermen to look at ways to maximize fishing opportunity on a given fish stock. For example, we’ve worked on new techniques to increase the survival of fish that are caught and released back into the water. Particularly with deep water fish, they can die from stress when they’re brought up from deep water.   We’re researching techniques to safely return these deepwater reef fish to the water in ways that increase their survival.

Q: Three years ago, scientists said the cod fish population in the Gulf of Maine was rebuilding, but a new assessment is not as optimistic. How does this happen?
The Gulf of Maine cod question is a major concern for us and we’re working closely with New England’s Congressional representatives, the New England Fishery Management Council and members of the fishing industry to understand what is happening and to put in place the right set of management measures. Either the health of the cod fish stock was measured inaccurately in 2008 or something has happened between 2008  and 2011 that changed the size of the stock. It could be a combination of those two things. We’re looking to see if there were indications that surveys in 2008 might have yielded overly optimistic results or whether some environmental event or some set of fishing behaviors like excess discarding had an effect on the stock that wasn’t measured until this year. It’s important to understand that mother nature sometimes can be difficult to predict.  

Q: Where do you feel NOAA science is strongest and where can it be improved if there are the resources?
We have some of the most sophisticated and accurate scientific research on fish stocks, marine mammals and sea turtles and ecosystems found anywhere in the world. But that is not to say we can’t improve. There is always opportunity to increase the frequency of surveys. With more robust surveys we can increase precision. One of our big challenges of late is getting a better handle on some of the deepwater reef fish found in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic. We’re exploring new survey techniques that might do a better job of measuring the presence of fish found around reefs. A big part of this is having ships out on the water, undertaking surveys on a regular basis and on a frequency that gives us the kind of information that provides a solid foundation for any assessment. We have also been spending a lot of time in recent years revamping our recreational catch and effort survey approaches and are close to having not only new survey approaches at the dock but also new methodologies to take those surveys and transfer them into usable data to better measure the impacts of recreational  fishing.

Q: And finally, what is your favorite seafood?
I’ll be impolitic here. Locally caught Chesapeake Bay blue crab cakes are the prize I would seek out above all others.