Cutting NOAA Isn’t Just About Climate and Satellites. It’s About Coastal Economies.

A budget proposal for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration leaked to the Washington Post would slash coastal science and resilience programs. It would limit natural disaster preparation and research. It would limit data gathering, including satellites, which can help communities prepare for extreme weather.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, a lot of jobs would vanish.

The proposal is only a draft, so it’s hard to gauge how serious the threat is. But these cuts would surely do more economic harm than you might think, especially if you’re tracking this administration’s talk about how government should run more like a business and how America needs to get back to work.

First, weather satellites that provide warning for tsunamis and hurricanes protect American navigational capacity and investments in cargo ships. Much of that work lives inside NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, on which Republican lawmakers have sustained attacks over the last two years.

Attacks on NCEI began when Texas Congressman Lamar Smith and others criticized an article published in Science, in which NOAA scientists concluded that a “pause” in warming didn’t happen. (Thomas Karl, the NCEI’s chief, was the study’s lead author.)

More recently, former NOAA scientist John Bates questioned Karl’s transparency and data handling practices, and suggested the Science study could have been rushed to publication in time for the Paris climate negotiations. Bates has not raised doubts about the accuracy of the study, and allegations about the study being rushed remain unproven. But his accusations juiced up attacks on the NCEI at a House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology hearing a month ago.

Reducing the NCEI to one man and one study is misleading, obviously. Especially when the centers contain a multitude of teams that collect oceanographic, coastal, geophysical and climatic data — everything from ancient sediment records to real-time satellites.

More easily overlooked, but similarly striking, is an idea to cut NOAA’s $73 million Sea Grant program entirely. Though it’s not the first time Sea Grant has been caught in political crossfire during its 50-year history, Bob Twilley, executive director of the Louisiana Sea Grant College Program, says the preliminary discussion published by the Post is “very disturbing.”

For one thing, Sea Grant is a bit of a financial force multiplier. “We leverage nearly four dollars to every dollar invested in our program to support jobs in our communities, training the next generation of how to work and live in our delta,” Twilley points out. In other words: that $73 million nationally stimulates other investments from states, universities, nonprofits and business — and a large return on all that funding locally. Losing 20 Sea Grant jobs in Louisiana would have ripple effects over hundreds more in the public sector, based in research, resilience and education. Not to mention private sector jobs like fishing.

Louisiana Sea Grant/via Flickr

A good example of that comes from Louisiana’s Vermillion Parish. The self-proclaimed “Most Cajun Place on Earth!” went 78 percent for Donald Trump in November, and since the turn of the century has survived several hurricanes and the massive Gulf oil spill.

Sea Grant helped found Delcambre Direct Seafood so that shrimpers in the port of Delcambre (and the neigboring town of Erath) can sell their catch right off the boat and over the internet. Delcambre’s little fleet sold more than a million dollars of shrimp in 2015, raising parish sales tax revenues by six percent.

The local marketing initiative has begotten more grants from other groups. And it was the first step toward a statewide collective, a multi-parish, regional effort that’s beenlifting sales for shrimpers and fishermen for six years.

A similar program in California is helping grow mussels sustainably near Ventura. “One of our primary investments is in aquaculture research and that industry, in helping to promote environmentally responsible and sustainable growth of protein for the people of this country,” says Jim Eckman, who directs the California Sea Grant Program at UC San Diego. “If Sea Grant were eliminated many dozens of jobs would be lost, and efforts to grow this industry would be deeply injured.”

Sea Grant’s other missions include public outreach and education. At USC, Sea Grant employs eight people and funds research for 15 more scientists in the region, says the program’s director, Phyllis Grifman. “Cuts to Sea Grant would mean that many of the problems of managing coastal resources and populations on the urban coast would go unresolved and unstudied,” she says. “Science education would suffer.”

Nobody’s saying Sea Grant is perfect, and some of its projects would surely find other funding if it ceased to exist. But because it makes local communities money, Sea Grant has long enjoyed bipartisan support. Senator Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, sponsored the program’s most recent reauthorization and hosted NOAA fellows in his office.

Western blue and Gulf Coast red states aren’t alone in risking lost funding. So would Great Lakes-area programs, in the swing states who swung for Trump ostensibly on the promise of a better economy. Thirty-three programs employing and supporting more than twenty thousand people  would disappear.

Regional Sea Grant managers will be in Washington next week, where they hope to make the case for their programs’ existence. ”No matter the partisan nature of local politics,” Twilley says, “Our mission is to serve as an honest broker of information to communities in responding to increased challenges of a changing coast.”


Aerial view of the Delcambre Docks, September 2014. By Louisiana Sea Grant via Flickr; Creative Commons License.

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