Obama’s NOAA Nominee Pledges to Work With Cantwell to Combat Ocean Acidification, Protect Fishing Jobs
NOAA acidification monitoring buoys critical to Washington state’s $270 million shellfish industry
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) urged the Obama Administration’s nominee for Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to prioritize ocean acidification monitoring and research crucial to Washington state’s $270 million shellfish industry.
During today’s Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing, Cantwell also secured commitments from Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, nominee to be NOAA Administrator, to prioritize a ‘robust’ national weather forecast system to better prepare coastal communities for extreme weather. President Obama announced Dr. Sullivan’s nomination on August 1, 2013, to replace Dr. Jane Lubchenco. She is currently the Acting Administrator of NOAA.
Cantwell asked Dr. Sullivan if the agency would continue to develop research and monitoring programs to for ocean acidification.
Dr. Sullivan replied: “We will certainly continue to work forward with you, if I am confirmed, to make sure that we can put in the right sort of observing, forecasting and monitoring systems to help us be as alert and aware and provide as much foresight as possible on this condition.”
“So you will develop sensors in critical areas,” responded Cantwell. “You will continue to do research? You will continue to deploy Adaptive Breeding Programs? Recommend management?”
Dr. Sullivan replied: “Within the resources available to us, Senator, we will certainly do that. All of those are components of our current ocean acidification program as you know.”
Senator Cantwell responded: “Within resources. That’s an interesting way of phrasing it. I guess I would say we had to come up with the resources to get that initial program that you said pays dividends. And without it I think three or four or five generations of shellfish growers would have been wiped out. And we grow something like 25 percent of the shellfish in one bay in our state. So this is a very serious issue so I hope that we cannot predicate it based on resources but on the urgency for this industry and for the resources to have this information.”
Shellfish aquaculture is a $2.8 billion industry in the United States. In the West Coast region, Washington state is by far the largest producer of farmed shellfish. Shellfish growers contribute $270 million to Washington state’s economy and support over 3,200 jobs in the state’s coastal communities. Shellfish farming is the largest employer in Pacific County and is the second largest employer in Mason County.
In 2010, Cantwell secured funding to acquire and deploy ocean acidification sensors near major shellfish hatcheries in Washington state. Today, these sensors, some of which are attached to buoys from NOAA’s Integrated Ocean Observation System program, allow shellfish growers to monitor ocean acidity in real time and close off their shellfish rearing tanks when ocean acidity is too high. Recent studies have shown a connection between ocean acidification and high mortality rates among young oysters and other shellfish like clams, geoducks and mussels.
Cantwell also urged Dr. Sullivan to continue NOAA’s partnership with the University of Washington’s Ocean Acidification Center to research how to protect at-risk species like red king crab from ocean acidification. Ocean acidification is an emerging threat, and the impact to key species like king crab is not well known. Red king crab generates about $100 million a year and supports fishing jobs in Washington state. Cantwell also pushed Dr. Sullivan to take a more active role in clearing the Army Corps of Engineers’ backlog of shellfish farm permits in order to create jobs in Washington state’s coastal economy.
During today’s hearing, Cantwell asked Dr. Sullivan about her support for transparently monitoring extreme weather events: “Obviously this is a subject that we care a lot about in the Pacific Northwest as we had to implement a new Doppler system. Are you going to support maintaining weather buoys and surveys, and using all of that information and planning it out into a more robust system than we have today? And making that transparent for the public?”
Dr. Sullivan replied: “Senator, I think it’s absolutely critical that we sustain a robust observing enterprise to power all of NOAA’s missions. As I commented in my oral statement, the observational data absolutely are the underpinning of what we do. We have made some strides in the past few years to set a better, clearer and more transparent foundation under our requirements and be sure those are flowing sensibly and well into well-designed portfolios of observing systems. Continuing to do that and driving that forward will certainly be a priority of mine if confirmed.”
Cantwell has led the effort to improve weather forecasting in the Pacific Northwest. At a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Hearing in 2012, Cantwell urged the Administration to improve weather forecasting technology to mitigate the impacts of severe weather and prevent loss of life and property. She spearheaded the successful push to get Washington state’s first coastal Doppler radar in 2011. The state-of-the-art Doppler radar is positioned west of the Olympic Mountains to improve the detection of severe storms approaching Washington’s coast and is the first fully operational Doppler radar in the nation to be equipped with dual polarization, the latest enhancement in radar technology for civilian weather forecasting.
A full transcript of the hearing follows:
Senator Cantwell: To follow up on that, weather-ready question. Obviously this is a subject that we care a lot about in the Pacific Northwest as we had to implement a new Doppler system. Are you going to support maintaining weather buoys and surveys, and using all of that information and planning it out into a more robust system than we have today? And making that transparent for the public?
Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, nominee to be Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere, Department of Commerce: Senator I think it’s absolutely critical that we sustain a robust observing enterprise to power all of NOAA’s missions. As I commented in my oral statement, the observational data absolutely are the underpinning of what we do. We have made some strides in the past few years to set a better, clearer and more transparent foundation under our requirements and be sure those are flowing sensibly and well into well-designed portfolios of observing systems. Continuing to do that and driving that forward will certainly be a priority of mine if confirmed.
Senator Cantwell: So do we have the supercomputing power to do that?
Dr. Sullivan: We are on track thanks in part to efforts that you helped lead and we very much appreciate. And to funds that were provided by the Congress in the Sandy Supplemental bill. We have been able to move forward just in these last few months on our operational weather forecasting supercomputers. They are today already twice the capacity they had when we last visited with you on the West Coast. We are on track to be on par with the best in the world in supercomputing capacity. And that is an absolutely essential ingredient to sustain the quality of forecast services that we all wish to have.
Senator Cantwell: Well thank you. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is and so we just need to tell the American people if we have a resource shortage here or whether we don’t. But clearly with the amount of storms that we’ve had and the impact and the loss of life – having NOAA have the greatest facilities – not hearing from the Europeans that Sandy is going to have the impact it had but hearing from NOAA that Sandy is going to have the impact it had. And having people prepare for that, to me is a critical mission for the agency. So I hope you will keep us posted on resources. I wanted to ask you, the Seattle Times is running the past few days stories on ocean acidification – front page – and so I wanted to get your sense of where ocean acidification will be as a priority for you at NOOA?
Dr. Sullivan: As you know very well Senator ocean acidification is one of the creeping threats of global change and the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It’s a very difficult problem. It’s going to be a very difficult problem to monitor and provide foresight about to coastal communities. We have made some progress in that regard in your region as I know you are aware with our ocean buoys and our harmful algal bloom warning systems. That’s paid some real dividends to West Coast shellfish farmers in helping them close off water intakes and prevent slurping in patches of more acidic water that can damage the young oysters that they are trying to seed in their pens. It’s a large-scale truly global problem, as you know. Systemic in affecting the Earth’s systems but it’s also patchy and has very patchy local consequences. We will certainly continue to work forward with you, if I am confirmed, to make sure that we can put in the right sort of observing, forecasting and monitoring systems to help us be as alert and aware and provide as much foresight as possible on this condition.
Senator Cantwell: So you will develop sensors in critical areas? You will continue to do research? You will continue to deploy Adaptive Breeding Programs? Recommend management?
Dr. Sullivan: Within the resources available to us Senator we will certainly do that. All of those are components of our current ocean acidification program as you know.
Senator Cantwell: Ok. Within resources. That’s an interesting way of phrasing it. I guess I would say we had to come up with the resources to get that initial program that you said pays dividends. And without it I think three or four or five generations of shellfish growers would have been wiped out. And we grow something like 25 percent of the shellfish in one bay in our state. So this is a very serious issue so I hope that we cannot predicate it based on resources but on the urgency for this industry and for the resources to have this information. Let me turn to one related aspect of that because my time is almost up. That is the NOOA research fleet and the fact that NOAA needs to have additional vessels. So do you support moving ahead on replacing these aging vessels and making sure that NOOA has a fleet of research information that is necessary to do its jobs and responsibility?
Dr. Sullivan: I do support that Senator. It’s quite imperative. Every analysis that’s been done over the last years of the Federal Oceanographic Fleet – including NOAA’s assets – show a very precipitous decline within the next 10 or so years if we don’t begin to reinvest in these critical capital assets. We’ve been doing the planning and preparation to move on those fronts and look forward to working with you to achieve that.
Senator Cantwell: So that will be one of your priorities?
Dr. Sullivan: Yes ma’am.
Senator Cantwell: Thank you Mr. Chairman and thanks for letting us have a second round here. I am going to go back to Dr. Sullivan. I think a lot of my colleagues are asking you questions because it shows the significance of a coastal economy to our nation. I was able to ask you a little about the science and research you would be willing to put behind the shellfish industry. But I also wanted to ask you if you are committed to helping the industry grow. It’s about 3,000 jobs in Washington state, about $270 million. And the reason I’m asking that is because one of the key issues is as the industry tries to make progress, and I always like to – the geoduck industry which is phenomenal. It costs nothing to grow, practically, and it’s outrageous what it sells for in Asia these days. So, you can’t even find geoduck in the Seattle market anymore. That’s how much the exports are going overseas. But as these guys try and figure out how to grow the oversight – without NOAA’s leadership – has been left up to the Army Corps of Engineers who have basically said, ‘I don’t know how to figure this out.’ So will you commit to having NOAA play a leadership role in trying to define how the industry grows? And overcoming these hurdles with the Army Corps of Engineers?
Dr. Sullivan: Senator we see tremendous potential in growing the aquaculture industry to help both preserve and protect jobs on or near the water. And also contribute to United States food security. Those are the underpinning points of our national shellfish initiative. We are working very closely predominately out of our Milford lab – but somewhat out of our Seattle labs – on helping the industry develop new techniques, looking at more efficient sustainable feeds, transferring that technology to industry and to your last point, very much working to try and streamline the permitting process. And make sure that that’s a clearer, easier path and that the scientific expertise that NOAA can contribute to that is brought to bear.
Senator Cantwell: So you will commit to playing a leadership role and not letting this be Army Corps of Engineers’ gray area?
Dr. Sullivan: There are some jurisdictional issues that drive some of that but we understand our role and take our role very seriously in helping lead on the development of aquaculture in the United States.
Senator Cantwell: Great, thank you. And part of our challenge here has been just where NOAA has been on nominees. Obviously there’s your position as administrator. Then the issue of your former post. And then obviously the deputy assistant secretary. So all of this has led to many rungs down the ladder not also being filled. And one of the challenges we’ve seen is in getting an appointment for the Halibut Commission. So this has been open for two years and this has been a big challenge to move forward on policy and process. So I guess I’m asking you whether you will commit to resolving that issue in a quick time period. I mean there is going to be disputes about who thinks what the Halibut Commission should look like. But the issue is not to let that controversy stalemate us and not get a nominee.
Dr. Sullivan: Certainly agree with you on that Senator and very much recognize the importance of the International Halibut Commission to the key fisheries in the Northwestern waters of the United States. I do commit to working with you to make sure that moves in as timely a fashion as possible. And we will keep your staff closely informed of all updates that we get.
Senator Cantwell: Ok. And I guess my last question – and again thank you for answering all of these in detail – but again this just shows you how critical this industry is to the Pacific Northwest. Will you use your leadership at NOAA to drive targeted research for that at-risk species like Alaska King Crab? And will you work to leverage some of the institutions that are already in place – like the Ocean Acidification Center at the University of Washington? Obviously NOAA and the UW work very closely together. But what we are trying to do is leverage more of this research to move forward. We are very proud what the Northwest has done on the fisheries management issue. When I listen to my colleagues on the other side of the aisle – we are ahead in recovery and sustainably. But we want to keep moving and obviously we have threats today. So will you commit to helping drive targeted research at these species that are at-risk? And using outside resources to help understand impacts?
Dr. Sullivan: We certainly value the partnerships we have with the University of Washington Senator. And we need the range of talents and diversity of views that our university partners like UW can bring to bear. So I do place quite a premium on working cooperatively with outstanding institutions in our states and regions. I’m not familiar with the finer points of the details of all of our fisheries programs at this moment. If you will I would ask to follow up with you on the question of targeted species research.
Senator Cantwell: Ok. Well I think what we are trying to do – Senator Collins and I passed a bill out of this committee several years ago on climate adaption – basically saying to agencies that no matter what you think about the larger political issue of how the climate is changing we have to have some adaptation policies. I guess what I’m asking you is – as it relates to ocean acidification – what are the species most at-risk and what do we need to do? And again going back to that science that prevailed from that buoy information, we were able to identify a better seeding process to save the shellfish industry so I guess what we are saying is targeting some of the most at-risk species like Alaska King Crab and figuring out what we need to do in relation to that to help that particular species survive.
Dr. Sullivan: You asked me a question that goes beyond the level of detail that I normally operate at Senator. Let me pledge to get back to you on that.
Senator Cantwell: Alright, thank you Mr. Chairman.
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