US ocean observatories imperiled by 'earmark' crackdown

The Senate has twice passed bills to formally establish and fund a national monitoring system, but House versions never came to a vote.

For the past six years, a network of high-tech buoys and radar stations have been providing a rich stream of data about conditions in the Gulf of Maine to fishermen, mariners, scientists, and search and rescue personnel. It's a prototype for a national system that could help with ocean management and save the lives of mariners.

But the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System (GoMoos) – and others like it across the country – may not be able to save themselves. Their federal funding is ending, in part because of congressional reforms that have clamped down on pork-barrel spending.

What makes the $4 million-a-year GoMoos stand out is that unlike many projects funded through a questionable process known as earmarks – think Alaska's "bridge to nowhere" – it enjoys wide support in and out of Congress and forms a part of the federal government's official ocean policy.

"GoMoos has really been a groundbreaking model for the whole country," says Rick Wahle of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. "And now the plug may be being pulled."

Monitoring America's oceans

The Portland-based network was supposed to serve as the prototype of an integrated national system of ocean-monitoring stations that would gather and process oceanographic information and release it free of charge to the public, much as the National Weather Service does with atmosphere data. Ten other regional ocean observing systems have been established across the United States and are in varying degrees of development.

Gathering such information is seen as a crucial step toward better managing the nation's oceans, which extend up to 200 miles offshore. For example: Many of the nation's fisheries have been fished into near oblivion, their recovery undermined by the deterioration of wetlands, coral reefs, and estuaries that many species rely on. There's expert consensus that ocean politics should be revamped to take into account how marine ecosystems work and that a national ocean-observing system is needed to collect the data that scientists require to properly understand the system.

The establishment of such a national system was one of the key 2004 recommendations of the US Commission on Ocean Policy, a body appointed by President Bush. The official report urged Congress to commit $650 million annually to build and maintain the system, which it said would have "invaluable economic, societal, and environmental benefits."

One of those benefits has been improved search and rescue.

"We're often trying to predict where survivors will have drifted over the time it takes for us to get to them, so we rely on predictive models of wind and currents," says Art Allen of the Coast Guard's search and rescue headquarters in Washington, D.C. "These systems allow our controllers to get the best available data at a push of a button, increasing the precision of our analysis and getting us there faster."

Fishermen use data on deep-water temperatures and the abundance of microscopic floating plants to figure out where fish might be, while many of Maine's recreational boaters have grown accustomed to getting detailed information on offshore wind and seas. Scientists are also keenly interested in the data to figure out how to harvest marine life without destroying the ocean's ability to produce it.

"These buoys are unique in that they collect temperature and current information not just at the surface, but at various intervals of depth," says Dr. Wahle, who studies the lobsters that support Maine's signature fishery. "With bottom-dwelling creatures like lobsters, it's far more important to know what's going on deep beneath the ocean."

Funding problems

Now, GoMoos may be forced to shut down. "We may be pulling out some of our buoys, or we may be pulling all of them," says Tom Shyka, GoMoos' chief operating officer. "We're working on other funding opportunities to avoid that, but we're definitely in a period of uncertainty."

Other ocean-observing networks are facing the same squeeze. "We do not have enough money to sustain the system in the long term," says Madilyn Fletcher, director of The Carolinas Coastal Ocean Observing and Prediction System in Columbia, S.C., which has deferred maintenance on its buoys and may pull them if funds cannot be secured.

The root problem: Congress never passed legislation to fund the system. In recent years, the Senate twice passed bills that would have formally established and fund the national system. House versions never came to the floor for a vote, according to congressional sources from both parties, because of the opposition of then- Rep. Richard Pombo (R) of California. As chair of the powerful natural resources committee, he often opposed spending on environmental issues.

As a result, the ocean-observing systems relied on congressional earmarks to cover most of their operations, but these were stripped from this year's budget.

"Given the scandalous results of the earmark process in recent years, something needed to be done," says Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste in Washington, which opposes earmarks. "It's an inequitable and noncompetitive way to allocate funds. It's difficult to separate what is worthwhile from what might not be."

Prospects for long-term funding have improved because Mr. Pombo lost his seat in November, proponents say. But even if appropriate legislation passes, it may be too late to avoid major disruptions. "Once you shut something down, you lose the people and expertise you've cultivated, and it's considerably more expensive to get it going again," notes Dr. Fletcher.

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