Frustrated senators from coastal states are wielding the power of the purse to rein in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and refocus the agency's priorities on its core missions.
During recent appropriations subcommittee hearings April 17, Sen. Lisa Murkowski ensured no funds would be provided in fiscal year 2013 for coastal marine spatial planning, a key component of President Barack Obama's National Ocean Policy.
Murkowski also pushed for an additional $3 million for regional fishery management councils and secured $15 million for the Pacific Salmon Treaty that was in line to be cut by NOAA's proposed budget (for $65 million total).
On April 24, the full Senate Appropriations Committee approved the Commerce Department budget with language inserted by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, into NOAA's budget that would transfer $119 million currently unrestricted funds and require they be used for stock assessments, surveys and monitoring, cooperative research and fisheries grants.
The $119 million is derived from Saltonstall-Kennedy funds, which are levies collected on seafood imports by the Department of Agriculture. Thirty percent of the import levies are transferred to NOAA annually, and without Kerry's language there are no restrictions on how NOAA may use the funds.
In a Congress defined by fierce partisanship, no federal agency has drawn as much fire from both parties as NOAA and its Administrator Jane Lubchenco.
Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., has repeatedly demanded accountability for NOAA Office of Law Enforcement abuses uncovered by the Commerce Department Inspector General that included the use of fishermen's fines to purchase a luxury boat that was only used for joyriding around Puget Sound.
There is currently another Inspector General investigation under way into the regional fishery management council rulemaking process that was requested last August by Massachusetts Reps. John Tierney and Barney Frank, both Democrats.
In July 2010, both Frank and Tierney called for Lubchenco to step down, a remarkable statement for members of Obama's party to make about one of his top appointments.
Frank introduced companion legislation to Kerry's in the House earlier this year, where it should sail through in a body that has repeatedly stripped out tens of millions in budget requests for catch share programs. Catch share programs are Lubchenco's favored policy for fisheries management and have been widely panned after implementation in New England in 2010 resulted in massive consolidation of the groundfish catch onto the largest fishing vessels.
Another New England crisis this year with Gulf of Maine cod also drove Kerry's action after a two-year old stock assessment was revised sharply downward and threatened to close down the fishery. Unlike many fisheries in Alaska such as pollock, crab and halibut, there are not annual stock assessment surveys around the country.
Without a new stock assessment for Gulf of Maine cod, the 2013 season will be in jeopardy.
"I applaud Senator Kerry for his leadership on this issue and for making sure that this funding is used for its intended purpose - to help the fishing industry, not to cover NOAA's administrative overhead," Frank said in a statement. "We are at a critical juncture at which we absolutely must provide more funding for cooperative fisheries science so we can base management policies on sound data, and we should make good use of the world-class institutions in the Bay State which have special expertise in this area."
Alaska's Sen. Mark Begich and Murkowski, as well as Rep. Don Young have also denounced the National Ocean Policy as particularly misguided, not only for diverting core funding in a time of tightening budgets but for creating a massive new bureaucracy that threatens to overlap existing authorities for the regional fishery management councils and local governments.
The first 92 pages of the draft policy released Jan. 12 call for more than 50 actions, nine priorities, a new National Ocean Council, nine Regional Planning Bodies tasked with creating Coastal Marine Spatial Plans, several interagency committees and taskforces, pilot projects, training in ecosystem-based management for federal employees, new water quality standards and the incorporation of the policy into regulatory and permitting decisions.
Some of the action items call for the involvement of as many as 27 federal agencies. Another requires high-quality marine waters to be identified and new or modified water quality and monitoring protocols to be established.
Young hosted a field hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee in Anchorage April 3 where he blasted the administration for refusing to explain exactly how it is paying for implementing the National Ocean Policy.
"This National Ocean Policy is a bad idea," Young said. "It will create more uncertainty for businesses and will limit job growth. It will also compound the potential for litigation by groups that oppose human activities. To make matters worse, the administration refuses to tell Congress how much money it will be diverting from other uses to fund this new policy."
Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., sent a letter House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers asking that every appropriations bill expressly prohibit any funds to be used for implementing the National Ocean Policy.
Another letter was sent April 12 to Rogers by more than 80 stakeholder groups from the Gulf of Mexico to the Bering Sea echoing the call to ban all federal funds for use in the policy implementation.
"The risk of unintended economic and societal consequences remains high, due in part to the unprecedented geographic scale under which the policy is to be established," the stakeholder letter states. "Concerns are further heightened because the policy has already been cited as justification in a federal decision restricting access to certain areas for commercial activity."
Congress refused to fund some $27 million in budget requests for NOAA in fiscal year 2012 to implement the National Ocean Policy, but the administration released its draft implementation policy in January anyway.
Begich told the Journal when the draft implementation plan was released that fund diversion was a "main concern."
"At a time Congress is reining in spending, I think the administration needs to prioritize funding for existing services especially those which support jobs such as fishery stock assessments and the like, and not new and contentious initiatives," he said.
Murkowski called the administration's implementation plan "clear as mud" at an Appropriations Committee hearing April 19.
"It's expensive; there are no dedicated funds for agencies to follow through with the commitments that have been identified in the draft implementation plan," she said. "I have been told that the national ocean policy initiative is going to be absorbed by these existing programs, but yet the agencies haven't been able to provide me with any indication as to what work is actually going to be set aside as part of that trade-off, so it is as clear as mud to me where the administration is really intending to take this."
Andrew Jensen can be reached at email@example.com.