The Indelible Ink of SharpieGate Spreads to NOAA Fisheries

September 30, 2019 | 4:15 pm
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

The health of our oceans is profoundly impacted by global warming. Yet you wouldn’t know it from current NOAA Fisheries Director Chris Oliver. At a Senate hearing last week, he “could not say whether climate change is endangering the nation’s fisheries and declined to ‘speculate’ on whether warming oceans will harm fish stocks or generate more hurricanes,” reports E&E news. Oliver said, “I’m not a weather specialist, but, I would—I think, from what I understand—for example, the increased hurricane activity is probably a result of that.”

You don’t need to be a weather specialist to observe the effects of global warming. Mr. Oliver is trained in marine science and has been involved in fisheries for many years, principally in Alaska. Alaska is one of the regions most affected by warming seas. At this point, anyone who works on natural resources can see those resources shifting due to changing climate. And by the way, weather is not the point, it is the long-term trends in climate.

So why dodge the question so thoroughly? I would speculate it is the long arm of the Sharpie. It’s hard to forget that NOAA staff were ordered not to contradict the President with regard to a hurricane forecast, no matter the facts, only a few weeks ago. And since then, while some NOAA and National Weather Service employees have come out in defense of their colleagues, Commerce Secretary Ross and the White House have been unrepentant.

Oliver said during the Senate hearing that the SharpieGate fiasco “caused us to refocus and reassert” NOAA’s autonomy and credibility. But it seems senior leadership is still afraid that giving the public the facts might be perceived by the White House as disloyal.

SharpieGate was but one symptom of the Trump administration’s censoring of the science of climate change. And climate science is but one of the many topics of scientific evidence that this administration is trying to obscure, manipulate, or sideline from our public policies. Our Attacks on Science web feature can hardly keep up with the pace of attacks. And that hurts us all. Because our policies need to be science-based—to protect public health, safety, our natural resources, our security.

I worked for NOAA Fisheries for more than ten years. It is the part of NOAA that is responsible for management of human activities that impact marine resources. In other words, it is partly a regulatory agency, responsible for managing federal fisheries. But most of the agency professional staff are scientists. And most of the agency’s resources are devoted to developing the scientific evidence in order to manage federal fisheries and other marine resources. It is the place where I learned firsthand the connection between science and policy.

So, to answer the hearing questions straightforwardly, yes, global warming is and will continue to affect fishery resources. Fish stocks are moving. Productivity is changing. Ecosystems are shifting in complex ways. The recent IPCC report on climate change and oceans presents the scientific evidence very clearly and the picture is scary. Fishing communities and fisheries managers will struggle to keep up with the changes in the ocean, as NOAA’s own information shows. And the nation’s fisheries agency can’t equivocate while the ocean warms.