A Fisheries Farewell to “Master of Disasters" Steve Freese

July 2017

On June 30th, after 33 years of service with NOAA Fisheries, including four years at headquarters in Washington, D.C. and 29 years with the West Coast Region (WCR) in Seattle, Steve Freese, who has been the regional fisheries economist and served as Acting Assistant Administrator for Sustainable Fisheries in the WCR, said his final goodbye to the Agency.

“Steve has been an incredible asset to NOAA Fisheries and the Pacific Northwest,” said Barry Thom, Regional Administrator of NOAA Fisheries WCR. “His care, compassion, and determination has guided us through some of our toughest and most challenging situations, and the agency, the public, and the natural resources we manage are better off for it. We’re fortunate that Steve has shared his many years of expertise with his successors and colleagues so they can carry on his tradition of public service.”

During his long career, Steve worked on many major fisheries issues facing the country, including phasing out foreign fishing, reducing foreign trade barriers to U.S. fishery products, designing and implementing federal fishery disaster declarations and fishing vessel buyback programs, rebuilding overfished fish stocks, and implementing individual fishing quotas and electronic reporting and monitoring in the West Coast groundfish trawl fisheries. His contributions to the way we manage West Coast fisheries today are a testament to the passion and dedication he had for his job and the fishing community.

On his last day in the office we asked Steve to look back and reflect on some of his most memorable work.

 Steve Freese receiving award

Department of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown (second from right) presents (from left) Steve Freese, Lance Simmons, and Bruce Morehead, with the Gold Medal Award for Distinguished Service for sustainable development efforts to help fishing communities affected by the collapse of Northeast fish stocks and closure of Northwest salmon fishing.

Q: What were some of the greatest challenges you faced working for NOAA Fisheries?

A: Since 1994, I have been involved with all of the West Coast fishery disaster determinations involving salmon, groundfish, and crab, hence my nickname the “Master of Disaster.” Many times Congress would respond to these determinations by appropriating disaster funds to assist fishermen and their communities who were struggling to make ends meet. Disaster determinations are made under either the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) or the Interjurisdictional Fisheries Act, or both.  Disaster assistance is provided under these Acts via congressional appropriations and in some instances, Congress bypasses these Acts and provides specific disaster assistance guidance.  However, in the early years, we were in uncharted waters as the NOAA Fisheries policies and processes had not been firmed up.  How do fishermen seek a disaster declaration? What were the qualifying causes of the disaster?  What are the appropriate uses of disaster funds? How do we get disaster funding assistance to the fishermen?  How do we work with the States and Tribes to get assistance to the fishermen and communities? What else can we do?

Working on disaster issues was incredibly challenging but rewarding work because there was a large human toll; the crises were real and we were often pressured to get things done fast. Because of their complexity, disaster evaluations require a high degree of coordination.  But with the help of many people, including but not limited to John Bullard (former Director of NOAA Fisheries Office of Sustainable Development and Intergovernmental Affairs and currently Greater Atlantic Regional Administrator), his key staffer Lance Simmons, Leila Afzal (NOAA General Council), and Randy Fisher (Executive Director of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission) and his staff, we were able to distribute disaster assistance to needy fishermen. We also used the funding in useful ways including designing and implementing vessel buyback programs to address overcapacity, hiring and training fishermen to restore critical habitat, employing fishermen to undertake cooperative research, job-training fishermen to adopt alternative careers, and providing income to affected fishermen and businesses.  Although often times frustrating, these projects have been an interesting blend of law, policy, science, economics, administrative processes and requirements, public outreach, and grants management.

Q: What was your greatest personal achievement at NOAA Fisheries?

A: Certainly my work on fishery disaster declarations is up there, but I think my greatest achievement was my contribution to the effort to introduce groundfish catch shares to the West Coast. Catch shares, a management approach that dedicates a share of certain fish to individual fishery participants, was a new concept at the time. With a secure amount of the total catch clearly defined, this system afforded fishermen more flexibility about when and how to fish, while minimizing the risks of overfishing. I was also involved with others (including the, Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement, NOAA Fisheries Northwest Fisheries Science Center, NOAA General Counsel, and WCR staff) in NOAA Fisheries’ work with the Pacific Fishery Management Council and industry to develop and implement a new electronic accounting system for the catch shares fishery. Instead of requiring fishermen to pay for human observers to monitor their catch, we worked collaboratively to find flexibility and introduced the option of using cameras on boats to provide the full accounting of catches, and bycatch, at less cost. It has been successful.

Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing NOAA Fisheries now?

A: Doing more with less – the MSA and other environmental conservation laws contain many legal requirements to manage and protect fisheries responsibly. Our ‘to-do’ list keeps growing. Meeting those requirements on a fixed and often uncertain budget is incredibly and increasingly challenging.

Q: What is your advice to new NOAA Fisheries employees?

A: I had an amazing journey at NOAA Fisheries. I feel lucky to have worked with such great people throughout my career. My advice to new staff, and there are some upcoming superstars, is to remember that you’re working for a great agency. There are times when things can get frustrating but it helps to remember that everyone is trying to do the right thing. Things change rapidly here. I started my career in International Affairs at headquarters and ended in WCR Sustainable Fisheries, with many stops in between. Be patient and open to change, it will lead to new opportunities.

Q: What are your plans for retirement?

A: I like to say I’m going back to school: I like to fish in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico so I’m going to teach myself Spanish. I dusted off my guitar so that’s my music class. I want to travel with my wife (who I met working at NOAA Fisheries on foreign fisheries issues), so that’s my geography class. And I plan to do more reading, so that’s English literature.  I will also be taking phys-ed and nutrition classes!

Steve and his brother fishing

This picture, of Steve (left) and his brother fishing in Mexico, has hung in his office for many years. Scrolled across the top it reads in jest, “Why am I still working at National Marine Fisheries Service?”  Now he will pass the torch to a new generation of fisheries managers.