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A Timely Action Plan

Fri, 11/17/2006 - 10:34am

Tim Studt
Editor in Chief
tim.studt@advantagemedia.com
A four-year-long study by an international team of researchers led by Boris Worm at Dalhousie Univ. in Halifax, Nova Scotia, hit the media headlines recently with their announcement of potential seafood collapses by the middle of this century due to the loss of ocean-based biodiversity. The National Fisheries Institute—supported by data from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)—followed up with a response stating that the wild capture fisheries system is healthy and managed properly for future generations.

About 29% of the current fish and seafood species have already collapsed, according to the researchers—meaning that their stocks have been depleted by 90% or more. Not surprisingly, the researchers also used FAO data as backup for their conclusions, which depict “an accelerating decline in coastal species over the past 1,000 years, resulting in the loss of biological filter capacity, nursery habitats, and healthy fisheries.”

While oceans cover about 71% of the surface of the earth, comparatively little research funding and efforts are traditionally applied to its study. This is all the more surprising, since about 200 million people worldwide depend on fishing for their livelihood, and more than a billion—roughly 20% of the world’s population—rely on fish for their main source of protein.

For all of these discussions, three NOAA programs—the National Ocean Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Oceanic and Atmospheric Research Agency—have seen wild swings in their FY2007 R&D budgets. Following several years of consecutive budget declines for each agency, the administration proposed another set of cuts (7%) for FY2007. The U.S. House of Representatives went even further and proposed nearly 18% reductions from the FY2006 levels. U.S. Senate hearings, for their part, proposed record levels of R&D funding increases (up 26% to $779 million).

While these Senate actions are commendable, the actual results of these House-Senate debates will likely be settled as part of an omnibus spending agreement in December or later with NOAA’s funding results probably dependent upon other agencies’ funding situations.

Even more far-reaching though, and also scheduled to occur in December, the National Science and Technology Council Joint Subcommittee on Ocean Science and Technology is expected to release an interagency planning document and implementation strategy on priorities for ocean science and technology for the next five to 10 years. Based on a framework established in 2005, this document will identify key themes for ocean science and technology and specify goals and time frames to achieve each theme. It will identify ocean-based coordination policies between federal and state agencies, industry, non-governmental organizations, and other nations. The plan will also include steps to improve education in ocean affairs and utilization of relevant scientific accomplishments outside of oceanography.

This plan appears to be everything that ocean scientists could ever hope for, except of course, the associated funding to actually make it happen. This is often the stumbling block in many of these programs and only time will tell how really effective the administration and the Congress will be to enforce and implement these plans. Let’s hope that this plan has a better funding path than that of the NOAA agencies.

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