Marylander leading bid to save Gulf fish

Former DNR official Schwaab is federal point man as fisheries chief on protecting area's marine life

  • Eric Schwaab, right, looks on as Nancy Sutley, chairmen of the White House Committee on Environmental Quality, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, NOAA Administrator and Walter Ingram, NOAA Fisheries scientist look at a map of areas in the Gulf. Eric is taking part in fish testing trip on the Gulf.
Eric Schwaab, right, looks on as Nancy Sutley, chairmen of the… (Photo courtesy of NOAA )
May 07, 2010|By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

Since leaving Maryland government to become federal fisheries chief two months ago, Eric Schwaab has been besieged by unhappy recreational anglers, called ineffective by commercial fishermen and labeled an unknown know-nothing by New England editorial writers.

But that was just a warm-up for the Catonsville resident's latest turn in the hot seat as point man for federal efforts to protect and save fish and shellfish in the path of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.

"The biggest challenge in this case is that it's still a developing event," Schwaab, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service, said on Friday from Pascagoula, Miss.

"There's still oil spilling into the Gulf at a fairly substantial rate. We're still very much in an adaptive posture, trying to use different tools to deal with the leak."

Wednesday, he was on a conference call with more than 100 stakeholders, ranging from Louisiana shrimpers and Florida red snapper fishermen to environmental groups and recreational tournament directors. Thursday, it was a second conference call and a tour of the Mississippi coast to make sure programs to sample pre-spill conditions are adequate to provide a baseline for restoration efforts.

A lot of what Schwaab is doing is explaining what is happening and what is not happening. Weather patterns change. Strategies are updated. The oil keeps moving, and with it, the federal no-fishing zone.

The closure, he said, "is important for public safety but it also protects the integrity, in the public eye, of the rest of the seafood coming out of the Gulf region … even though we have a fairly substantial closure in federal waters, it still represents less than 5 percent of the Gulf of Mexico."

Biologists also are reviewing historical data of fish life cycles to better predict the impact of the spill.

Schwaab, 48, grew up in West Baltimore and attended St. William of York School. With his friend, Marty Gary, now assistant director of Maryland's Fisheries Service, he rode his bike to fish the Patapsco River.

"We read fishing reports and combed through topo maps, looking for farm ponds and fishing holes," said Gary. "We were like modern-day treasure hunters."

Schwaab's family moved to Carroll County, and after graduating from South Carroll High, he went to what is now McDaniel College for a degree in biology (he also has a master's degree from Towson University). He joined Maryland Department of Natural Resources in 1983 as a Natural Resources Police officer and park ranger.

Before this week, Schwaab's biggest turn in the spotlight was in 2002 as Maryland's go-to guy in the fight against the snakehead invasion. That landed him a part in a Stephen Colbert report from Crofton on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." Back then, he was head of DNR's Fisheries Service, one of the many jobs he held at the agency.

Less than a year later, he was fired hours after losing a fight with then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration over easing crabbing restrictions. He went to Washington as an official with the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and returned to the DNR in 2007 as the No. 2 man.

"You always keep your eyes on the rising stars, and Eric is a rising star," said DNR Secretary John R. Griffin, who promoted Schwaab up through the ranks and brought him back three years ago. "Of all the people I've worked with, I think Eric has it all."

Jane Lubchenco, the head of NOAA, apparently agreed, hiring him away in February to oversee a $904.5 million budget and nearly 3,300 employees. She praised Schwaab as "a creative and proven manager, consensus builder and leader," but the commercial industry and its backers howled.

"Schwaab is not a scientist nor does he have experience with the complex issues surrounding marine fisheries," contended the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, a Massachusetts daily. Another newspaper even found fault with the fact that the new bureaucrat lives in "a landlocked Baltimore suburb."

But it wasn't much different back when Schwaab became Maryland fisheries chief.

"We all went, 'Who?'" said Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "But there was nothing we could complain about. He was a guy without baggage. We found he was a quick study with a clear vision, and he worked his butt off. He provided the clearest turning point toward science-based fisheries management."

With the memory of Katrina still fresh and elections looming in November, there's the possibility that decisions will become political flash points, turning those with a hand in the process into talk-show fodder.

Schwaab said he doesn't worry about that as he helps chart a course.

"I'm not down here by myself," he said, chuckling and naming all of the Obama administration's Cabinet secretaries and advisers who have visited the Gulf. "I don't think that with the job we have to do, you can worry about that. I'm very confident that we are doing everything we possibly can do to help down here, to help the fish and the marine mammals and habitat and to help the communities."

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