President-elect Barack Obama’s appointment of Jane Lubchenco, an Oregon State University marine biologist, to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could be a major positive step for protecting America’s fisheries.

In recent years, NOAA has ignored scientists’ advice when it comes to setting quotas for some of our most vulnerable fish species, favoring commercial interests over conservation. With a scientist like Lubchenco in charge, I hope that NOAA will start to take a more scientific tack in its management.

Lubchenco, a well-regarded researcher and professor, will have her hands full. America’s fisheries are among the best-managed in the world, but that’s just because there’s not much competition.

Take the recent ICCAT negotiations in Marrakech, for example, where the body charged with preserving eastern bluefin tuna potentially condemned the species to commercial extinction by setting a quota double scientists’ recommendations.

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America’s salmon stocks are still reeling from this year’s mysterious crash. Alaska pollock, often considered an example in good fishery management for the rest of the world, not only wastes salmon as bycatch but also faces sudden declines of its own. Meanwhile, the Chesapeake soft shell and peeler blue crab fisheries are in such poor shape that watermen are now eligible for $20 million in federal bailout money.

But with Lubchenco at the helm, I have renewed hope. Protecting seafood species isn’t complicated. Given a chance, most fish species will rebound to healthy levels, but only if they get relief from unrealistic fishing pressure. A clear-eyed scientist like Lubchenco can steer America’s fisheries to health because she recognizes the stakes. As she told the New York Times’ Andrew Revkin:

The oceans have long been thought to be so vast and bountiful that they must be impervious to human depredation. The evidence is now overwhelming that even the immense oceans are depleted and disrupted. Turns out that oceans are more vulnerable — and more valuable — than we thought.

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