Eric Schwaab, a native Baltimorean who's spent the last three years in the federal government overseeing fisheries and coastal conservation efforts, is returning home to take a new post at the National Aquarium.
Schwaab, 52, currently an acting assistant secretary in the leadership at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will join the aquarium July 1 as its first-ever senior vice president and chief conservation officer, the Inner Harbor nonprofit announced Wednesday.
"Eric's wealth of experience and passion will help us expand and better promote conservation action to protect the ocean, our planet's life support system," said John Racanelli, the aquarium's CEO.
Before joining NOAA, Schwaab spent roughly two decades with the state Department of Natural Resources, where he held a variety of posts including deputy secretary and fisheries director.
He was tapped in 2010 by NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco as assistant administrator for fisheries. At the time, New England lawmakers in Congress were calling for Lubchenco's resignation over revelations that agency law enforcement officials were using fishing penalty payments to buy cars and boats, go to international conferences and fund covert activities with little budget oversight. Some fishermen also were unhappy over catch limits imposed by NOAA.
Schwaab said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who had been among those calling for Lubchenco to leave, told him that "the jury was still out on me. I don't know how he feels about me today."
The tensions stemmed in part from Congress directing NOAA to end overfishing and rebuild depleted fisheries. Schwaab said Wednesday that he feels the agency has done that now. He also said he felt good about NOAA's role in establishing "catch share" programs, in which fishermen divide up the harvest among themselves and can enhance their income by choosing when to bring their catch to market.
Last year, Lubchenco named Schwaab NOAA's acting assistant secretary for conservation and management, where he focused on broader issues of protecting and restoring ocean and coastal habitat, especially in the face of climate change.
"The best management of fishermen is going to be for naught if we don't deal with some of these long-term habitat challenges," he said in an interview Wednesday.
Though the position requires Senate confirmation, Schwaab said he took it with the understanding he was only filling in until a permanent replacement could be found. Earlier this year, Lubchenco, a longtime academic scientist, left NOAA to return to academe. Kathryn Sullivan, an oceanographer who at one time was NOAA's chief scientist, has since been named acting undersecretary of commerce in charge of the agency.
Schwaab said he was torn about taking the aquarium job, but ultimately felt it offered both professional and personal opportunities.
"It presents for me a new challenge, an oppportunity to not only engage differently around these important coastal and ocean conservation issues, but to do so with the express purpopse of reaching a much broader audience," he said.