One Year after Tsunami, Cantwell Pushes NOAA Head to Aggressively Track Tsunami Debris

During hearing, Cantwell also questions cuts to tsunami warning system, job-protecting ocean acidification monitoring, salmon recovery, and NOAA’s commitment to West Coast groundfish fishery ****VIDEO AVAILABLE****

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell urged the head of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) today to step up programs to analyze the potential danger of debris from last year’s Japanese tsunami to Washington’s coastal economy.

During an Oceans, Fisheries, Coast Guard, and Atmosphere Subcommittee hearing today, Cantwell questioned NOAA head Dr. Jane Lubchenco on the agency’s readiness to address the threat tsunami debris poses to Washington state’s coastal economy. President Obama’s FY13 budget proposes a 25 percent cut to NOAA’s Marine Debris Program.

After a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan on March 11, 2011, an enormous amount of debris was washed out to sea. Currently, the debris is spread out across an area measuring 2,000 by 1,000 nautical miles and is expected to reach Hawaii later this year and Washington state starting in early 2013. Washington state’s coastal economy supports 165,000 jobs and produces $10.8 billion in economic activity each year.

“We’re very concerned. And we think it’s going to have an impact but we certainly would love to have the data to understand the level of that impact,” Cantwell said to Lubchenco today regarding the tsunami debris approaching the Pacific Coast. “So my concern is that the President’s budget already cuts the existing marine debris program by 25 percent. This is before the tsunami even happened. This is a program that you have to deal with marine debris and it’s being cut now 25 percent before you’re even dealing with this level. So my question is how are you going to be able to deal with this with the 25 percent cut?”

Lubchenco responded: “I think the cut to this program is going to be a challenge. It is one of the very important programs that in other circumstances we would not have chosen to cut. …It’s just not clear what impact it’s going to be having. …We will do the best with what we have. If we had more we would be doing more.”

Cantwell said: “Well, that’s not a good answer for someone trying to represent a state and an economy that’s going to be impacted. We don’t want to hear now, ‘well, we could do better if we had more money.’ It’s the president’s budget that’s recommending cuts and if you don’t have enough money to get that analysis we’d rather hear that today so that we can do something about it.”

Watch a video of Cantwell’s exchange with Lubchenco today.

Last November, Cantwell secured Senate Commerce Committee passage of an amendment to address the threat approaching tsunami debris poses to industries up and down Washington’s coastline. Cantwell’s amendment would identify the debris as a unique threat and require the Undersecretary for Oceans and Atmosphere to develop an interagency action plan to help prepare our region for this potentially serious problem. Cantwell continues to fight to ensure a plan is in place to address the threat the tsunami debris poses to Washington state’s coastal economy.

Cantwell urged Lubchenco today to come up with a plan to address the threat tsunami debris may pose to the coastal economy: “What our major concern is, and we’ve had this addressed in a hearing in a mark-up before this committee, is that when it’s here it will be too late to have a plan. And when it starts impacting the fishing industry and people can’t fish because they have too much debris, or it affects tourism, or many other things, it’s too late. So we want to make sure that we are ahead of the situation and we have a plan for whatever those three scenarios occur.”

Cantwell also questioned Lubchenco on the FY13 proposed budget cuts to the tsunami DART (deep-ocean assessment and reporting of tsunamis) buoy warning system, which is critical to providing a life-saving tsunami warning to coastal residents. NOAA oversees the U.S. tsunami program, which is charged with providing a 24 hour detection and warning system and increasing awareness about tsunami threats.

President Obama’s FY13 budget proposes a $4.6 million cut that would seriously affect the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program, DART warning buoys and end all federal support for the local program activities under the Tsunami Warning and Education Act (TWEA), which Cantwell championed. Tsunami-detecting ocean sensors, known as DART buoys, improve the ability to detect and forecast tsunamis. The United States currently has 40 DART buoys deployed in oceans around the world, of which 10 are currently not operational.

Since TWEA’s passage in 2006, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources Geology and Earth Resources Division has worked closely with NOAA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, state emergency management, and local communities to better prepare Washington’s coastal communities for tsunami impacts. The regional network and coordination among coastal states has been significantly strengthened as well.

“The National Tsunami Hazardous Mitigation Program and Dart Warning Buoy System…the warning system – which the buoy system is part of – the technology is great and it’s been improved with time,” Cantwell said to Lubchenco. “But that is also being cut $4.6 million dollars. And so how is that going to affect the warning system for the state of Washington?”

Lubchenco responded: “Those dart buoys are key in helping us fine-tune our warnings as the tsunami is moving across the ocean. The fewer funds will play out in the following way. We will not be able to maintain those buoys at the rate we now maintain them. And it would be nice to be able to maintain them at the same rate. It’s not something that we think is going to seriously jeopardize our ability to warn communities, to issue the kinds of warnings that we do today.”

“Japan had 30 minutes, so 30 minutes of warning. And if you think about the amount of damage that was done,” Cantwell said. “So we’re trying to build a more integrated system and I’m certainly aware of the impact that the buoy system plays in giving you more updated information. … So the system is building a smarter network to monitor all across the ocean. So I’d like to get from your agency how many are currently operational and how many do you think are needed to make sure we have a functioning system. So if we can get that information from you.”

Lubchenco agreed to provide Cantwell with the information she requested.

Cantwell also questioned Lubchenco on the agency’s decision to cut critical ocean acidification monitoring funding that supports thousands of jobs in Washington state. In 2010, Cantwell secured funding to acquire and deploy ocean acidification sensors near major shellfish hatcheries in Washington state. Today, these sensors, combined with buoys from NOAA’s Integrated Ocean Observation System program, allow shellfish growers to monitor ocean acidity in real time. President Obama’s FY13 budget reduces by $2.5 million funding for maintaining and delivering the data collected from these buoys, which help sustain thousands of jobs in Washington state.

“And then similarly but a different piece of information is the cut to the program for monitoring ocean acidification,” Cantwell said to Lubchenco. “So this is vital information that helps us and I think that there is a chart that shows where these buoys have protected thousands of jobs in Washington state because what you’re doing on the identification of acidification is allowing people to shut down valves that protect those kinds of waters from coming in and killing crops. So very, very important for a very key industry in our state. And yet you’re cutting that program as well.”

Lubchenco responded: “Senator, this is one of those choices that I’m not happy about because it’s a program that is very, very important. We will continue to do monitoring; it’s not that we’re not doing anything. We won’t be able to do it at the scale we would like to do it.”

“It’s $250,000 for a return investment of an industry that’s over $270 million dollars,” Cantwell responded. “I would think that that amount of money would have the agency thinking hard about a program that is helping an industry do the seeding that allows shellfish to grow. So I hope that we’re going to keep pushing on these issues.”

“Cutting back on science that is important for jobs and the economy can’t be substituted,” Cantwell continued. “And so we’re going to make sure that if there is a short-fall here as it relates to science that are protecting jobs and protecting lives we’re going to make sure that they get addressed in the budgets and the appropriations bills going forward.”

Shellfish farmers in Washington state are already severely impacted by ocean acidification. In Washington, the shellfish industry supports over 3,200 jobs and has a total economic contribution of $270 million annually. In addition, recreational shellfish harvesting generates over $27 million dollars per year in revenue for state parks, restaurants, outfitters, and other local businesses.

“Shellfish growers are major employers in rural western Washington paying in excess of $27 million in wages annually in Mason and Pacific counties,” said Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish. “The information generated from the IOOS buoys is vital as we struggle to produce oyster seed in an increasingly acidic ocean.”

Senator Cantwell has long fought for additional scientific knowledge on the impacts of ocean acidification, as well as a nationwide program to address the problem. In 2010, Cantwell chaired an Oceans Subcommittee hearing to highlight the rising threat of ocean acidification. At the hearing, a report from the National Academies of Science’s National Research Council was released that found evidence to indicate that a more acidic ocean could dissolve the shells of the tiny organisms that make up the base of the ocean’s food chain. Ocean acidification and ocean dead zones already threaten the entire shellfish industry in the Pacific Northwest by giving rise to dangerous bacteria that hinder natural reproduction.

Cantwell co-sponsored the Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act and worked to enact the bill into law in March 2009. The legislation established the nation’s first comprehensive research program to specifically study ocean acidification.

Today, Cantwell also asked about NOAA’s commitment to Washington state’s West Coast groundfish fishery’s catch share program, which began about one year ago and relies on federal funding for critical observer coverage during its transition to catch shares. The catch share program is crucial to limiting overfishing, improving safety, and increasing economic stability for Washington state’s West Coast groundfish fishery, which supports 1,800 jobs.

In one year alone, the fishery is already seeing positive results from the switch to catch shares.  Fishermen have seen their revenues for some species of fish, such as whiting, triple since the catch share program began. This was a fishery that in 2000 was declared a federal disaster by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Bycatch has been reduced from 20 to 25 percent to only 1 percent.

“I wanted to ask you about your commitment to make sure that that is a vital catch-share program and that NOAA is doing everything it can to support that,” Cantwell said.

Lubchenco responded: “It is a vital program. We are doing everything we can to support it. And it is already by all accounts transforming the industry. There have been a huge increase in revenues as a result and I think people are pleased with it. That said, there are many challenges that remain. And continuing to cover the observer costs is one that many in the industry have flagged. We are working with them on what is possible on that front. There are a number of other aspects that we are working with them. I think we have a good rapport and we’re really, I think it’s a good success but we need to make it even better.”

The West Coast groundfish fishery has been working for years to end the race for fish by implementing a catch share system. Implementation of the Pacific Coast groundfish trawl catch share program began in 2011, but Washington state fishermen are worried that promised program support from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) might fall victim to federal government cuts. Last March during an Oceans Subcommittee hearing, Cantwell secured a commitment from then NMFS Assistant Administrator Eric Schwaab to make the West Coast groundfish fishery a top priority in budgetary decisions.

The Seattle Times praised the catch share program in a December 2010 editorial, saying it would “reduce economic and environmental waste.”

“If the new system works, it should remove the economic waste of the ‘race for fish,’ improve fisheries management and provide fish lovers with a supply of delicious whiting, turbot, sole, Pacific cod and black cod,” the Times editorial board wrote on December 27.

Tens of thousands of Washington jobs depend on the health of the ocean’s resources, but overfishing could threaten long-term sustainability and the health of the fishing economy. Fisheries along Washington’s coast produced roughly $3.7 billion in sales impacts and supported 72,000 jobs in 2008, according to the NMFS.

Cantwell also questioned Lubchenco on the proposed $15 million dollar reduction in FY13 funding for the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund in addition to a $33.5 million cut from Pacific salmon programs. This budget cut will reduce critical salmon habitat restoration programs as well as programs which help commercial and recreational fishermen. This includes a consolidation of the Northwest and Southwest fisheries offices – which could have serious implications for on-the-ground activities in Washington state. Salmon contribute $1.6 billion to the local economy.

“What do you think the impacts are on the regional councils and fisheries from this budget?” Cantwell said.

Lubchenco responded: “So clearly we are not funding the regional fishing management councils and commissions at the level that we have in the last couple of years. We did everything we could to protect the funding to the councils and commissions in previous years when other things were taking a hit. They are taking a hit this year and we are working with the councils to try and identify what exactly the consequences will be. We don’t know that yet. That relates to all the fishery management councils not just the ones that are of interest to your fishermen.

“The salmon, the proposed funding for salmon in the FY13 budget is down from what it was last year, as you know,” Lubchenco continued. “And I think there will be some serious consequences to that because many of those programs are very good.”

Cantwell has consistently fought to sustain Washington’s valuable salmon populations. Last November, Cantwell won Senate Commerce Committee passage of her legislation to sustain thriving wild salmon populations, or ‘salmon strongholds.’ The Pacific Salmon Stronghold Conservation Act seeks to preserve the economic, ecological, cultural, and health benefits of wild Pacific Salmon for generations. It was introduced last July with the backing of all eight U.S. Senators representing the Pacific Coast states of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California.

The bipartisan Pacific Salmon Stronghold Conservation Act of 2011 establishes a public-private partnership board administered by NOAA’s NMFS and comprised of federal, state, tribal, and non-governmental-organizations invested in sustaining strong wild salmon populations. The legislation charges this multi-jurisdictional group to sustain core salmon stronghold populations and habitats in order to preserve our thriving salmon stocks for future generations.

Cantwell introduced similar salmon stronghold legislation during both the 110th and 111th congresses. Cantwell has long supported salmon recovery programs, including prioritizing funding for the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund. In the states of Washington, California, Idaho, and Oregon, roughly 20 percent of salmon habitat supports about half of the region’s salmon abundance.