Osha Gray Davidson
osha at pobox.com
Wed Aug 25 16:37:52 EDT 1999
When the US Congress returns from recess soon, it will take up funding
of NOAA's reef and marine sanctuary programs. At the risk of getting flamed for
self-promotion, I'm going to reprint below an opinion piece I wrote on this
topic that appeared in the Miami Herald on 1 August. (It's not
self-promotion--it's sloth.) On 13 August, the Tampa [Florida] Tribune ran
their own editorial calling for full funding for NOAA. I'm including that
below, too. Please contact your representative (if American) to register your
feelings on the issue. I should think that responses by non-American,
particularly scientists, would be helpful as well. Messages could be addressed
to Olympia at snowe.senate.gov, a US Senator who is supporting NOAA funding. Her
phone number is 202-224-5344.
Dont Shortchange NOAA
In 1937, Rachel Carson wrote, Who has known the ocean? Neither you nor
I. . . More than 60 years later, we have learned a great deal about the marine
world. Scientists have discovered deep sea vents, where bizarre tube worms
thrive on plumes of hot gasses. Taxonomists have found and cataloged a host of
previously unknown life forms, from glowing microscopic whirl-a-gigs to species
of fish that can change their sex several times a night.
Its easy to imagine Carson the marine biologist giddily cheering on
these new discoveries. One gets the queasy feeling, however, that that
clear-eyed skeptic might also point out that ignorance remains the defining
characteristic of our relationship with the ocean. Despite impressive gains, we
still know more about outer space than about the waters that make up 99% of the
planets biosphere, or living space.
Far worse than our ignorance is our rampant destruction of this
environment (a process that Carson, the author of Silent Spring, knew only too
well). A burgeoning human population coupled with technological advances have
degraded the oceans, far beyond anything Carson witnessed in her lifetime.
Everywhere you look beneath the waves, you see wounds, tears in the marine
biological fabric. Each year trawling nets reduce to rubble an area of seabed
twice the size of the continental United States the marine equivalent of
forestrys clear-cutting. Nitrogen pours into the ocean from farm fields and
hog lots, and from sewage plants and septic tanks, stimulating huge algae
blooms that smoother coral reefs and kill fish by the thousands, and creating
huge oxygen-depleted dead-zones. Over-fishing by the desperate poor, and by
the greedy for the affluent, decimate fish stocks around the world. New
diseases emerge from our once pristine waters with alarming regularity,
threatening to drive some species into the black hole of extinction.
But if threats to coastal waters abound, so do efforts to protect
When we think of organizations working to preserve the oceans, the
suspects come to mind: Reef Relief, the Center For Marine Conservation,
Greenpeace, the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club. Commendable groups, all.
But the primary responsibility for safeguarding the oceans falls as it should
to the alphabet soup of government agencies that most people rarely hear about,
organizations such as the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The latter is charged with a
unique responsibility in protecting coastal waters including the most
biodiverse and productive ecosystems of the marine world: coral reefs,
sometimes called the rainforests of the sea.
The US Senate apparently understands that a fully-funded NOAA is one of
the best investments in our nations aquatic future. On July 22, the Senate
passed a bill appropriating $2.5 billion for NOAA a nearly 15% increase over
last years funding. In a display of bi-partisanship that was as pleasing as it
was rare, specific coral reef initiatives were advanced by Senators Daniel
Inouye (D-HI) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME). Floridas Senator Connie Mack (R) also
insured that the National Coral Reef Institute in Ft. Lauderdale would continue
to receive NOAA funding, to the tune of $1 million annually.
The Senate bill isnt perfect. For example, the Clinton Administration
had requested $10 million in new funds to be spent annually on reef assessment,
monitoring and restoration. The Senate at first axed this important measure,
but, at Senator Inouyes urging, finally allocated $6 million for the job. And
while NOAA requested $29 million to support and expand its Marine Sanctuaries
program, the Senate appropriated just $18 million for this vitally important
undertaking. (To get an idea of just how inadequate current funding is,
consider that the New England Aquarium recently spent 50% more on an exhibit
about the Stellwagen Bank, off the coast of Massachusetts, than NOAA spent last
year to manage the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.)
Still, the Senates action overall is positive, representing a high
watermark (forgive the pun) for this session. And it will likely be followed by
even more marine friendly measures. Senator Snowe has introduced a bill
providing community-based coral conservation programs $4 million in annual
federal matching funds. Shes also backing a separate measure to fund marine
sanctuaries at a rate even higher than that requested by NOAA. And Senator
Inouye is pressing forward with his own bill, authorizing $20 million a year
earmarked for coral reef protection.
But there is a stinging jellyfish in the ointment.
The US House of Representatives seems inexplicably intent on denying
NOAA the funds it needs to do its job. The House, with the blessing of
Appropriations Chair Bill Young (R-FL), has introduced its own NOAA bill, and
that measure provides a whopping 25% less in funds than the Senate version. If
the House prevails, it will be a case of penny-wise, pound-foolishness at its
very worst. The consequences for coral reefs, and for many other coastal
ecosystems protected by NOAA, would be devastating.
Perhaps the Houses short-sightedness isnt so baffling. Programs
faceless bureaucrats make tempting targets when budget-cutters unsheathe
their knives. But House members would do well to remember that not all
defenders of the natural world are found in activist groups.
Take, for example, the marine biologist who worked for the FWS for
nearly two decades. A faceless bureaucrat she may have been, but the
contributions made by Rachel Carson are pricelessand so is the work of her
philosophical descendants at NOAA.
NOAA deserves serious budget help
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is one of the key
agencies charged with safekeeping the nation's ocean waters. Its role is
particularly important in Florida, virtually surrounded by the sea.
NOAA helps determine the status of fisheries, measures the extent of pollution
and performs many other tasks that help maintain the health of marine life. Of
particular note, NOAA is working to rescue the ailing Florida Keys, which have
been badly damaged by water pollution and the other effects of years of
But this agency, which has been free of scandal and performs a useful
role for taxpayers, is under attack. A House bill would cut its budget by 10
percent, crippling its ability to do the research necessary to protect the
nation's coastal waters.
NOAA is by no means lavishly funded. Osha Gray Davidson, University of
Iowa professor and author of ``The Enchanted Braid: Coming to Terms with Nature
on the Coral Reef, gave an account of NOAA's plight in The Miami Herald that
pointed out ``the New England Aquarium recently spent 50 percent more on an
exhibit about the Stellwagen Bank off the coast of Massachusetts, than NOAA
spent last year to manage the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.''
The Senate, to its credit, would adequately fund NOAA, appropriating
$2.5 billion, an almost 15 percent increase. Sen. Connie Mack made sure the
National Coral Reef Institute in Fort Lauderdale would receive NOAA funding of
$1 million a year. Another provision would provide $4 million in federal
matching funds that would go toward community-based coral reef conservation
The House, on the other hand, simply turned its back on the nation's
coral reefs and marine resources. Appropriations chair Bill Young of St.
Petersburg has a fine record in fighting offshore drilling for oil and other
threats to the state's coast. Surely he cannot approve of this little-noted
attempt to undermine an agency so important to marine research and resource
protection. Representatives from Florida, of all people, should understand the
value of NOAA and rally to its support.
Osha Gray Davidson
Adjunct Assistant Professor
International Programs, University of Iowa
14 S. Governor St.
Iowa City, IA 52240
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