North Pacific council director a possibility for top fish post
SEATTLE — It would make sense for an expert on Alaska to oversee the nation’s fisheries, even if he is a Texan.
Chris Oliver, the executive director of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council for the past 16 years, didn’t ask for a consideration as the new assistant administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service; rather, the most powerful fishing industry voices in the nation’s most profitable region asked.
He doesn’t know if the new administration will offer it or if he’d want it if it did.
Still, looking at his history, knowledge and reputation, he seems in many ways a natural fit.
“There’s no guarantee…that I would say yes if they offered it to me,” he said after the North Pacific council wrapped up its recent meeting Feb. 6 in Seattle. “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. I’m inclined to do it because it interests me.”
The National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, accounts for virtually every fish in U.S. waters. A part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration within the U.S. Department of Commerce, the NMFS assistant administrator is the country’s fish czar.
Oliver said when it became known that the current administrator, Eileen Sobeck, won’t be staying with the new administration, parts of the fishing universe aligned.
Half a hundred letters poured into NOAA offices endorsing Oliver, from seafood companies, industry associations and Alaska Native organizations.
Names like Trident Seafoods, Icicle Seafoods, Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, Alaska Marine Conservation Council, At Sea Processors Association, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., Fishing Vessel Owners Association, Pacific Seafoods Processors Association, United Catcher Boats, and United Fishermen’s Marketing Association have become well known to Oliver over the last 27 years.
In 1990, Oliver turned down a recently acquired fisheries job in his native Texas to work as the Gulf of Alaska plan coordinator for the North Pacific council, putting his degrees in business and in fisheries science from Texas A&M to natural use.
He moved to a deputy director position in 1992 and to his current executive director position in 2001.
In the North Pacific, Oliver entered into a time of changing attitudes, as more and more fisheries moved from open access, or derby style fisheries, to limited access programs, which assign catch shares to individual vessel or cooperatives.
In the North Pacific and elsewhere, catch share systems are a contentious issue; Oliver said in an interview he’s already had fisheries stakeholders from other regions probing for what his intent would be with their respective fisheries.
Oliver’s answer sums up both his attitude and in part that of the new administration.
“It’s not my call,” he said. “What makes sense in the North Pacific…may not make sense in New England, or in the Gulf of Mexico. I would like to see the agency be more decentralized. It goes hand-in-hand with regional flexibility. It’s a constituent, stakeholder driven process.”
Oliver didn’t say one thing or another about President Donald Trump, but both his answers and his history indicate he would fit into the administration’s regulatory philosophy.
Trump’s direction with regulatory agencies aims broadly to streamline regulations and cut bureaucratic fat. He rolled back Dodd-Frank Act laws only days after signing an executive order titled “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs,” which aims to cut two old regulations per every new one and caps the cost of new regulations for the federal government.
Oliver has run the council for 16 years with an oft-stated allegiance to “council process” and “regional flexibility” — that is, trusting fishermen to craft their own regulations through public council involvement and letting councils operate as they need to given their differences.
“From a government structure perspective, the previous administration and NOAA has been quite centralized and top-down,” he said. “I’m of course a big believer in the regional council process and transparency. So hopefully that’s what they’re looking for. If it is, I think I might be a good fit.”
Fisheries management is highly political, but Oliver said his role as director has insulated him.
“To the extent that part of my job is to be neutral and objective,” he said, “it is a political position at NOAA. Maybe there’s a bit of a misfit in that sense, that I’m not a political person.”
In practice, Oliver holds strictly to the executive director’s core mission, only weighing into council talks for procedural items or to remind them what kind of resources exist for which tasks.
Among staff and fisheries stakeholders, Oliver has a reputation as clear thinking and bluntly spoken.
“He’s just really practical,” said Sarah Merrinan, a fisheries economist who works as staff for the council.” He doesn’t want to form committees just for the sake of committees. He wants to know are we going to actually produce a product or are we going to sit around talking? I think that’s a really productive person to have in management.”
Despite being apolitical, in the North Pacific, Oliver has directed more U.S. fisheries landings than the others combined.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is within the U.S. Department of Commerce for a reason — fish are worth money.
U.S. commercial and recreational fisheries between three and 200 miles off the coast brought in $5.2 billion in 2015. Alaska’s massive area coverage of healthy fishing stocks makes it more productive than the rest of the U.S. combined. In 2015, the North Pacific region accounted for 62 percent of the total U.S. catch.
Oliver, who insists he’s “not a city guy” ready for the Washington, D.C., Beltway, speaks of the potential position with worry, but also seems to see an upside to learning more about the nation’s waters.
He had been planning to retire in two-and-a-half years, collect his pension and maybe do some consulting. Moving to Silver Spring, Md.,where NMFS is headquartered, would put a damper on his plans, Alaskan lifestyle, and finances.
“Now I’d be taking on a four-year commitment,” he said. “I would look at it as sort of a career cap.”
DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].