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President's Budget Cuts Funding for Fisheries Programs

by Lolita C. Baldor, Associated Press
Environmental News Network, February 15, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Five months after a presidential commission recommended spending billions more to protect the nation's oceans, the White House has proposed a budget that would reduce funding for fisheries and eliminate the Pacific Islands regional office in Hawaii.

The proposed $727 million National Marine Fisheries Service budget slices nearly $100 million off the current year's spending -- an 11.6 percent decline. And it would cut spending in half on programs that monitor and protect marine mammals, including whales, bottlenose dolphins and porpoises.

But the spending blueprint would also increase money for enforcement and buy a new research boat for the West Coast.

William Hogarth, who heads the Fisheries Service, said he will have to turn to Congress to replace funding for the Pacific Islands office, because shutting it down "is not an option."

But overall, he said: "I'm very happy with our budget. You can always use more. But if you look at the economic conditions in this country, we got a fair shake."

The proposed budget would allow the agency to hire two more observers who monitor fishing vessels and their interaction with bycatch -- unwanted animals that get caught up in fishing gear. It also provides additional money for vessel tracking systems, which are used to help monitor where commercial boats are fishing.

Hogarth said he was particularly pleased to get an additional research vessel because the agency's current ships are having mechanical problems and lack the technology necessary for deep water studies.

This is the fourth new vessel ordered by the agency in recent years, and the first new one is just being delivered to the Alaska region.

Environmental groups said the funding cuts fly in the face of two major reports last year that called for greater protections for the oceans, including the creation of a $4 billion government trust fund to pay for improved research, fisheries management and pollution controls.

"Everyone is embracing the oceans and saying we need to take action, and the administration didn't step up," said Gerald Leape, vice president for marine conservation at the National Environmental Trust.

He said efforts to monitor and protect marine mammals will have to be scaled back. As part of its oversight of the $60 billion fishing industry, the Fisheries Service has programs to monitor and limit the number of whales, porpoises and other mammals that are killed or injured after getting tangled in fishing lines, nets or traps.

Members of Congress said they were disappointed in the funding cuts, particularly in the wake of last September's U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy report that issued a grim assessment of the nation's oceans and Great Lakes.

"The (commission) made it clear that our nation must ensure that the oceans' bounty can be sustained for decades to come," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who heads the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Fisheries and Coast Guard. She said the president's budget request "does not appear to go far enough to seek the types of innovative solutions or aggressive funding increases that are vital to this effort."

After a 2 1/2-year study, the commission found overexploited fish stocks and other depleted marine resources, the loss or declining resilience of habitat, and pervasive water contamination.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said it will be up to Congress to boost funding for the agency. The budget, he said, "doesn't reflect the needed resources for vital survival and safety training that could have saved the lives of our fishermen in New Bedford this past December." Kennedy was referring to an incident in which five fishermen aboard a scallop boat drowned.

Lolita C. Baldor, Associated Press
President's Budget Cuts Funding for Fisheries Programs
Environmental News Network, February 15, 2005

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