This story was updated May 4.
A former Louisiana official, an Alaskan fishery manager and a Sea Grant program director are reportedly in the running to head the National Marine Fisheries Service.
NMFS — an agency within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — oversees fishing regulations, endangered species listings and fisheries research. It is headed by an assistant administrator for fisheries, a position that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross can fill without Senate confirmation.
It’s unclear when Ross — or the White House — will make that decision. But three names have popped up as contenders, according to several sources inside and outside the agency: Robert Barham, Chris Oliver and LaDon Swann.
Barham was once Louisiana’s wildlife and fisheries secretary, Oliver heads the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and Swann is the director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium.
Fishermen are split in their support.
Barham served as wildlife and fisheries secretary under former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R). Some recreational fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico — as well as the shrimp and menhaden industry — recently sent letters to Ross emphasizing Barham’s Louisiana experience and his identity as a hunter and fisherman.
"We have had the opportunity to work with Mr. Barham over the years and … it is evident that he possesses the management ability and understanding of the nuances of maintaining sustainable fish populations, while maximizing their economic value," wrote officials from Omega Protein Corp. and other companies that harvest menhaden, a tiny forage fish used in fish oil.
Some Gulf of Mexico anglers have also tried to propel Barham to the NMFS spot, with the hope that he will come down on their side in the controversy over red snapper quotas. The debate has made its way to Capitol Hill, with some Republicans newly enraged by this year’s three-day recreational fishing season (E&E Daily, May 3).
In a Facebook post shared among anglers, fisherman Steve Hoyland Jr. provided a form letter to send to Ross that praised Barham’s ability to "manage the public’s fish and wildlife resources in a manner that balances conservation and access."
"If Robert Barham could get this position, it would totally change how our fishery is managed," Hoyland wrote in one post. "THIS MAN IS ON OUR SIDE!!! We need him in this seat."
Barham’s tenure at the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries was marred after auditors found questionable spending between 2010 and 2015. A report from the state legislative auditor found, among other things, that the department spent some Gulf oil spill recovery money on boats, cameras, iPads, clothing and "an abundance of fishing and water sports equipment."
The money was part of $10.5 million BP PLC provided for a seafood safety program to test fish. Barham has emphasized that the program came in under budget and properly tested fish. He sent E&E News a statement from the legislative auditor that says the office has "no further need nor are we conducting any further audit procedures related to the November 14, 2016 report as it pertains to then Secretary of Wildlife and Fisheries, Mr. Robert Barham."
Oliver is the longtime executive director of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which is based in Anchorage, Alaska. Commercial and charter boat fishermen have endorsed him as an experienced leader, with groups from New England, the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico sending letters of support to the Commerce Department.
Most recently, the Gulf Seafood Institute, the Louisiana Restaurant Association, the Charter Fisherman’s Association and similar groups wrote in an April letter to Ross that Oliver "has proven to be a motivated and talented leader with a passion for bridging divides among diverse fishing interest in the Pacific Northwest and beyond."
Oliver has helmed the fishery council for 16 years. In an interview with the Alaska Journal of Commerce earlier this year, he said he would be "inclined" to take the NMFS job if asked.
"There’s no guarantee … that I would say yes if they offered it to me," he told the newspaper. "But I’ve got a lot of people who’ve expended a lot of effort, and my understanding is I’ve got a pretty strong backing from our congressional delegation."
Oliver began at the council in 1990 as a plan coordinator. He is from Texas and worked on Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery management issues, according to his biography on the council’s website. He has advocated for a more regional approach to fishery management.
Several council decisions in recent years have been reversed by the courts. Last year, for example, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a 2011 decision to remove an Alaskan salmon fishery from federal oversight. Fishing groups won a lawsuit in 2012 to overturn the council’s fishing closures to protect Steller sea lions.
Swann directs one of 33 Sea Grant programs President Trump has proposed eliminating, citing its primary benefit to "industry and state and local stakeholders."
Congress appears unlikely to follow through with that suggestion; an omnibus spending package slated to pass this week preserves the popular program. And Swann — who has also worked at the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant College Program — is reportedly the pick of some Alabama lawmakers who see him as a good fit for NMFS.
In his position at Sea Grant, Swann must help coastal communities become resilient without stirring up debate about climate change. He recently told ProPublica that the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium is "a neutral broker of science information" that is there to give communities the data — not persuade them of the link between climate change and coastal hazards.
Swann is also a recreational fisherman. A 2015 al.com article detailed his record-breaking catch of a 94-pound cubera snapper.
Swann, who has a master’s in fisheries biology and a Ph.D. in curriculum, is also former president of the United States Aquaculture Society. In recent years, NMFS has attempted to promote sustainable aquaculture as a way forward for the increasing demands for seafood.