NOAA, administration press on with ocean policy changes
Congress refused last year to fund a $27 million budget request to implement President Barack Obama’s new National Ocean Policy, but that isn’t stopping the administration from moving forward with the plan.
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 25 federal agencies. Another requires high-quality marine waters to be identified and new or modified water quality and monitoring protocols to be established.
Then on page 93 of the 94-page document, the agency says the policy “will be done without creating new bureaucracy or negative economic impacts.”
In a conference call Feb. 21, representatives of the new National Ocean Council, or NOC, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration attempted to reassure stakeholders that implementing the policy won’t divert resources from current funding needs, such as stock assessments.
“Taking a step back and looking at what the national ocean policy is trying to do, it really is trying to maximize coordination with existing agencies and existing authorities in a clear recognition there are fewer resources available to all of us and our non-federal partners,” Michael Weiss, acting director of the NOC, said during the call. “This is to better leverage existing resources, not looking for new resources.”
NOAA released its budget request for fiscal year 2013 Feb. 17, which includes cuts in collaborative research with industry and eliminates $1.5 million in funding for a successful fishing safety program.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has repeatedly sought $3.8 million in one-time start-up funds to begin a revamped at-sea observer program currently scheduled to begin in 2013. The North Pacific fisheries are the only ones in the nation that self-fund at-sea and shoreside processing observers.
Sen. Mark Begich, who is chairman of the Oceans subcommittee that overseas the NOAA budget, said diversion of resources has “always been a main concern of mine” when it comes to the national ocean policy and coastal marine spatial planning.
“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,” Begich said in written statements provided to the Journal. “I include observer funding as a priority since it is an essential component of sustainable fishery management.”
NOAA’s 2013 budget request includes some $17 million for observers, but those funds are heading for catch share programs on the east and west coasts that fishing fleets cannot fund themselves.
Because Alaska’s fleet self-funds its observer program, there is no way to collect start-up funds for expanded coverage while vessels are paying the current daily rate of $486. If the Alaska Region receives the needed $3.8 million, a 1.25 percent ex-vessel fee would be collected in 2013 to fund the program in perpetuity, unlike the east and west coast programs, which will likely require observer funding for years.
In response to a question from the Journal about why implementing the national ocean policy appeared to be more important for the administration than funding existing missions such as vessel safety, stock assessments or observers, NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Eric Schwaab said the agency was trying to balance short- and long-term needs.
“When we looked at putting out budget together, we talked a lot about trying to instill balance not only across science and stewardship missions, but the needs of the here and now with the needs on the horizon,” Schwaab said. “When you think about some of the big challenges that face fishermen beyond today’s assessments and today’s observer needs, there are big issues around the coast with competing uses like energy development both renewable and nonrenewable, big ecosystem challenges that are out there
“If we’re not investing in some of those longer term challenges at the same time we’re addressing some of the here and now challenges, then we’re being penny-wise pound foolish in the big scheme of things as it relates to our fisheries.”
Schwaab said he believed a commitment had been made to the council for the 2013 observer funding, but North Pacific council Executive Director Chris Oliver, who was on the call, said no such assurance has yet been received
“Unfortunately I don’t have an answer,” Oliver said. “We had meeting with (NOAA Deputy Assistant Administrator) Sam Rauch and company last week. We’re still waiting for NOAA Fisheries to unveil its 2012 spending plan, which is where that potential startup funding would come from. We’re waiting as well for that answer.”
Draft policy details
The draft policy, available on the NOC website, includes dozens of action items over the next few years and most involve NOAA. Four of the nine regional planning bodies, or RPB, are required to be up and running by mid-2013 with the other five by 2015.
The RPB are tasked with Coastal Marine Spatial Planning, or CMSP, to develop comprehensive usage regimes for the coasts and the Great Lakes. The creation of RPB has raised concerns with regional fishery management councils because initially there were no seats at the table for their members.
The administration has addressed that concern, announcing Feb. 1 that one member from each regional fishery management council would be designated for each RPB. However, that representative from a fishery council must be one of the designated government representatives. For example, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council that governs federal waters off Alaska has four designated government representatives from Alaska, Washington, Oregon and National Marine Fisheries Service.
The states and NMFS do not always agree on matters that come before the North Pacific council, but the RPB require decision-makers for members as they are designed to be inter-government bodies.
“I’m still hearing some concern that while that’s great, there doesn’t appear to be any specific formal consultation mechanism with the broader council as a whole,” Oliver told Weiss. “Is there any possibility that while you have a council member on body, that there is some other feedback mechanism to the councils before, say before the recommendations of RPB go forward to the extent they involve fisheries?”
Weiss told Oliver that nothing would prevent other council members from participating in the RPB process, and that council involvement would also take place when the regional planning bodies form their technical teams.
“That’s probably going to be composed in large part from your (Scientific and Statistical Committees) as well as other scientists and technical experts,” Weiss said, referring to the council SSC, which analyzes council actions and is responsible for determining annual catch limits. “That was another part of ensuring that formal consultation with the regional fishery management councils.”
Linda Kozak of Independent Crab Harvesters in Kodiak asked how conflicts would be resolved if a regional planning body comes up with a coastal marine spatial plan that conflicts with an existing fishery management plan.
Weiss told Kozak that CMSP are informative, not regulatory authorities, and that if there is a conflict, the regional fishery management councils’ actions would govern.
Begich said “serious questions” remain about how conflicts between regional planning bodies and regional fishery management councils would play out.
“The North Pacific Council has already taken a variety of management actions which affect huge parts of the oceans which surround our state,” Begich said. “It’s not practical to think that regulatory decisions by the CMSP planners won’t conflict with the regional fish councils at times. How they resolve those without the councils having any say in the process is a serious problem.”
The day after the White House released its draft National Ocean Policy implementation plan, Obama announced plans to reorganize several agencies within the Commerce Department and proposed moving NOAA to the Interior Department.
While Begich appreciates the goal of better coordination among federal agencies called for in the draft policy, “I don’t see a whole lot of streamlining going on here,” he said.
Comments are being taken on the draft policy until Feb. 27 on the National Ocean Council website hosted at www.whitehouse.gov. Several of the action items are to be initiated this year.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.