Ocean Agency Must Keep Its Focus on Climate Change and Sustaining Marine Ecosystems

June 26, 2018 | 11:56 am
Photo: Darla White (NOAA)
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

It has been a tumultuous couple of weeks for ocean aficionados like me.

The Acting Administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Adm. Timothy Gallaudet, made a presentation to leadership at the Department of Commerce, NOAA’s home, on possible changes and priorities for the agency during this administration. The second slide appeared as follows:

The text clearly describes a shift away from scientific work on climate and efforts to conserve and manage ocean and coastal resources.

Further, the presentation went on to describe strategic priorities, with no mention of climate change and stewardship of resources, but primary focus on weather forecasting, deregulation and economic development.

To me, this mission and these priorities make little sense. In an era when the climate is changing with dramatic effects on our nation and the world, how can the principal agency tasked with understanding our oceans and atmosphere not strategically address climate? We simply can’t develop the ocean economy, including increasing fishery and aquaculture production, without both conserving resources and addressing the ongoing effects of a changing climate. As we’ve seen in the past with species like cod, haddock, some tunas and even shellfish stocks, overfishing without regard to conservation crashes fish populations and harms coastal economies. As a former NOAA scientist, then regional administrator and then Deputy Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, I know well the challenges of managing ocean resources, including fisheries and aquaculture. We have made extraordinary progress in ending overfishing, as well as conserving marine mammals and endangered species. And we can’t let up now, because maintaining functioning ecosystems is the key to productive fisheries AND aquaculture.

Following press reporting based on the presentation slides obtained by UCS, Adm. Gallaudet swiftly backtracked. His press office issued a statement saying, “The PowerPoint was intended to share new ways NOAA could augment the DOC’s [Department of Commerce] strategic plan. It was not intended to exclude NOAA’s important climate and conservation efforts, which are essential for protecting lives and the environment. Nor should this presentation be considered a final, vetted proposal.”

He then sent the following email to NOAA staff:

June 25, 2018

Last week, I gave a presentation at an internal meeting within the Department of Commerce (“DOC”) where I shared some of my thoughts on NOAA. My presentation, which was not reviewed by the Office of the Secretary prior to the meeting, was intended to share new ways NOAA could augment the DOC’s strategic plan. It was not intended to exclude NOAA’s important climate and conservation efforts, which are essential for protecting lives and the environment. Nor should this presentation be considered a final, vetted proposal.

Secretary Ross, the Department, and I support NOAA’s mission to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans and coasts; to share that knowledge and information with others; and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources. We are also fully aware of the congressional mandates and will continue to adhere to them.

With gratitude and respect,

RDML Tim Gallaudet, Ph.D., USN Ret.

Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and

Acting Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

It is a huge relief if NOAA and Department of Commerce back away from this misguided effort to redirect the agency. But we must be vigilant. Because at the same time, the President issued an “Executive Order Regarding the Ocean Policy to Advance the Economic, Security, and Environmental Interests of the United States” which rescinds President Obama’s Executive Order establishing a national ocean policy. That policy, which was essentially based on the work of two national commissions (I served on one of them), established principles of conservation, management and stewardship of our ocean ecosystems and resources, promoted regional and federal agency cooperation, and called for national programs to advance ocean science in concert with addressing the ongoing effects of climate change. The new order from President Trump seems to set no clear policy direction other than economic development, no matter how many times I read it. Economic development without conservation and management is simplistic, short-term thinking that will harm the ocean economy in short order.

And the President’s Office of Management and Budget proposed a reorganization plan that would remove the National Marine Fisheries Service from NOAA and merge it with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the Department of Interior, effectively severing the ties between marine resource management and the ocean science agency (NB: to do so would require an act of Congress). And, the Executive Office of the President released a draft report for public comment entitled, “Science and Technology for America’s Oceans: a Decadal Vision”.

Now, Adm. Gallaudet may have backed away from his presentation changes in NOAA’s mission and strategic priorities, but the ocean science plan from the White House contains those very same priorities. There is no mention of climate science, and the second goal reads, “Goal II. Promote Economic Prosperity: 1) Expand Domestic Seafood Production; 2) Explore Potential Energy Sources; 3) Assess Marine Critical Minerals; 4) Balance Economic and Ecological Benefits; 5) Promote the Blue Workforce” with no mention of conservation and stewardship.

A plan that focuses solely on unregulated fishing and energy squanders the great progress we have made in understand our ocean and atmospheric system and recovering, conserving and managing ocean ecosystems. I hope we don’t, but I will be watching, and you should too.