A Blue Budget Beyond Sequester: Taking care of our oceans

This past year was a tough year - from deep sequester cuts to a government shutdown. Our oceans definitely felt the budget crunch. After much excruciating negotiation, Congress finally passed a budget and now we are on the road to what we hope will be a saner way to govern and plan.

The President has just released his budget for Fiscal Year 2015. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) budget can mean the difference between thriving oceans and coastal communities, or the decline in this invaluable public resource. This year’s budget signals that we will invest in protecting that resource, but by no means provides all that will be needed for the big job ahead. With half of Americans living in coastal areas, NOAA’s work means protecting our citizens and our natural resources. Moreover, with a national ocean economy that is larger than the entire U.S. farm sector in terms of jobs and economic output, keeping this economic powerhouse functioning matters to us all.

For fiscal year 2015, NOAA has proposed a budget of approximately $5.5 billion, an increase of 3.2% above the 2014 enacted funding levels, which took steps to mitigate the worst effects of sequestration but did not fund programs at the levels to which they ultimately need to be supported. This is a very modest increase, given the enormity of the agency’s task. Based on this request, there is every reason why Congress should fund the President’s Budget. Even the small increases this year recognize the agency’s critical role in feeding our nation, protecting our coastal economies and preserving our precious ocean resources.

NOAA has dual responsiblilities ranging from mapping the ocean floor to maintaining orbiting satellites for weather forecasting. And if we want to see investments in protecting coastal economies and ocean health, in addition to accurate weather data, we need to ensure that NOAA’s budget is able to support both its “wet”, ocean side, as well as the “dry” weather forecasting activities. This means funding both effective ocean, coastal, and fisheries programs, in addition to weather forecasts, warnings and satellites. The National Ocean Service (NOS), which helps us understand and protect our oceans and coasts, will need investments to continue its work. In FY 2015, NOAA requests a small increase of $20.6 million for NOS over the 2014 enacted levels.

With renewed commitment from both the Administration and communities around our nation to prepare for the impacts of a changing climate, NOAA’s budget includes programs to help our nation adapt to these changes.  Some of our nation’s fishermen are on the front lines of climate impacts, as they watch more acidic waters decimate oyster harvests while fish populations shift away from their classic geographic range. Because ocean acidification is changing the very chemistry of our waters and threatening productive coastal economies, the President’s Budget has committed $15 million in funding for ocean acidification research and monitoring. Just ask any shellfish farmer and you will hear that this investment is long overdue and will help make the difference between abundant harvests and seasons without oysters to sell.

NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is tasked with managing our ocean’s fisheries. In years past we have seen our fish stocks crash, but thanks to Congressional action in 1996 and 2006 on the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Management Act, stocks around the nation are now rebounding. Implementing this highly successful Act requires funding to gather accurate data on the status of our fish stocks and fishery managers to help implement programs. Funding these programs will help ensure our nations fisheries can continue to support coastal economies while filling our dinner plates for years to come. This year, NOAA is requesting nearly flat funding for NMFS compared to the FY14 enacted levels, as those provided funds for fisheries disaster assistance which are not reoccurring.   

Unfortunately, some critical programs won’t get what they need this year. This year’s budget cuts funding for Ocean Exploration and Research by $7 million.  This funding has supported exploration by the research vessel Okeanos of deep sea corals and other marine life in the submarine canyons and seamounts off the Mid-Atlantic and New England coasts that fisheries managers and ocean conservation groups, including NRDC, are working to protect. Even though funds are stretched, shortchanging exploration and research will lead to weaker protections for species and resources that are already under stress.

While we often think about all of the cutting edge science and data NOAA provides us, we often forget that it takes experts and assets to bring us those benefits. To address this, the budget includes an increase for NOAA’s corporate functions and agency management. From forecasting the days’ weather, to protecting our nation’s fish stocks and helping vulnerable areas prepare for climate change, NOAA can only provide us these services if it has the capacity and support it needs to fulfill its vital missions.

The news is largely better for NOAA programs after damaging sequester cuts, though we are still not nearly where we need to be to ensure the best outcomes for our marine resources. Congress now has the opportunity to fund NOAA under the President’s Budget to bring us closer to retaining the benefit of plentiful fisheries, cutting edge science to help us adapt to climate change, environmental intelligence to help ensure healthy oceans and many other critical services. After the damaging impacts of sequester, it’s time to find our way to a budget that can support all we demand from our oceans, while protecting them for future generations.