06/21/2011 09:49 am ET | Updated Aug 21, 2011

Memo to John Bryson: Start Studying Up on Fish

Nixon cabinet intrigue is the short explanation for why the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sits within the Department of Commerce.

In 1970, the President received recommendations that the new agency be incorporated into the Department of the Interior. White House tensions with then-Interior Secretary Walter Hickel ran high, however; while relations with Commerce Secretary Maurice Stans were strong. In the summer of 1970, Nixon returned from a weekend trip with Stans determined that NOAA would fall under the Secretary of Commerce. He submitted Reorganization Plan No. 4 to Congress shortly thereafter formalizing his decision.

The machinations of the Nixon cabinet seem like ancient history, but they produced an enduring structure which, for the most part, has served us well. For John Bryson -- President Obama's pick as the next Secretary of Commerce, whose Senate confirmation process gets underway today -- the decisions of that era will loom large. Few nominees for the position know it when they first agree to serve, but no aspect of their job is more important than conserving and managing our marine resources. And for Bryson, that means he needs to lose no time becoming acquainted with the world of fisheries management.

Our nation's marine fisheries have had a complex recent history. In 1976, amidst concern that foreign fleets were depleting US fish populations, Congress passed a new law to "Americanize" fishing off our nation's coasts, phasing out foreign fishing and promoting a domestic industry. This law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, emphasized promotion of American fishing interests at the expense of sustainability. In many fisheries, such as New England cod, the domestic capacity to catch fish far exceeded the reproductive capacity of the ocean. By the late 1980s, many fish populations had again collapsed.

Working our way back from the brink has been a decades-long challenge. It has included unlikely alliances of fishermen, conservationists, scientists and citizens uniting to win sweeping changes to our law; but also repeated acts of obfuscation and pusillanimity from fisheries managers, who too often balked when the going got tough.

If confirmed, John Bryson will inherit a Department that is finally making significant progress in efforts to end overfishing. A new Marine Fish Conservation Network report confirms that science-based management is working, with new mandatory tools -- Annual Catch Limits and Accountability Measures -- giving rise to responsive, adaptive and flexible frameworks that can secure a more prosperous fishing future. In time, the economic dividends will be significant: rebuilding US fisheries has the potential to increase dockside value by $2.2 billion annually, generating an additional $31 billion in sales, and supporting 500,000 new jobs.

But success is far from guaranteed. Overfishing continues unabated in at least 40 US fisheries, and concerted efforts to roll back science-based management are emerging. It will take political courage and a firm hand to see through the process of reform. As John Bryson sizes up the array of challenges his new assignment will entail, he would do well to focus on this one. And as he contemplates inter-agency initiatives that can produce economic returns for our nation, he should not forget the enormous dividends his own department can deliver by securing the long-term health of our nation's marine fisheries.