Talk of Maine
Despite wide support, Maine's ocean monitoring newtwork (GoMoos) suffers partial collapse.
- By: Colin Woodard
Photograph Courtesy GoMOOS/Neal Pettigrew/University of Maine
It’s hard to find anyone who dislikes the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System (GoMOOS), a network of automated buoys and shore-based radar stations that’s been streaming data on oceanographic and weather conditions off our coast for the past eight years. Fishermen consult readings from the offshore buoys to decide whether it’s safe to go out. Pilots check them to see if it’s safe to bring an oil tanker in. And if somebody gets in trouble, the U.S. Coast Guard use the buoy’s readings to help rescuers locate them.
“The better we can characterize the winds and currents out there, the better job we can do to locate lost survivors at sea,” says Art Allen, a physical oceanographer at the Coast Guard’s Office of Search and Rescue. “We depend on regional ocean observing systems to provide the high level of data that lets us do that.”
The data stream that helps those HH-60 helicopters figure out where a life raft has drifted in the middle of a storm is compiled to help scientists figure out what makes the Gulf of Maine ecosystem tick. The network’s buoys report temperature, salinity, and current at various depths, which helps Rick Wahle, of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay Harbor, figure out where lobster larvae are being carried and, therefore, what future lobster landings are likely to look like. Others use it to predict when lobster will molt, to figure out where a red tide is likely to occur, or where shrimp are likely to be found.
“It’s really key to understanding the biological processes and fish populations in the Gulf of Maine,” says Linda Mercer, director of the bureau of resource management at the Department of Marine Resources. “Without the buoys, there would be a lot more guess work.”
But despite its popularity and utility — and the fact that it’s a model for ocean observing systems worldwide — the GoMOOS network is collapsing for lack of federal funds. By the time you read this, five of the network’s eleven buoys will have been hauled ashore, possibly forever.
Among the casualties: Buoy J (which warned Cooke Aquaculture when water cold enough to kill salmon might be en route to its Eastport-area pens), Buoy C (which helped pilots guide ships into Portland), and Buoy L, which stood sentinel off Nova Scotia, helping scientists understand how water (and marine life) flowed into and through the Gulf.
“The buoy arrays,” says GoMOOS chief executive Philip Bogden, “are doing about as well as the economy.”
The problem: for years the federal government has been unwilling or unable to come up with the money necessary to maintain the system: two million dollars a year, or about the cost of a single M2A3 Bradley armored fighting vehicle. This despite the fact that GoMOOS saves Americans an estimated $33 million a year in rescued property, improved fisheries management, reduced oil spills (according to a 2001 study co-authored by University of Southern Maine economist Charles Colgan), and is a model for the national network of ocean observing systems endorsed by both President George W. Bush’s U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the (liberal-leaning) Pew Oceans Commission.
This year the federal contribution was just seven hundred thousand dollars and, despite donations from Maine, Massachusetts, the University of New Hampshire, Cooke Aquaculture, Portland Pilots, and others, there was no way to keep the entire network running. “There’s been a hodgepodge of funding for a while, and despite the diversification of contributors, it’s just not enough to sustain the buoys,” says Tom Shyka, the chief operating officer of GoMOOS, which is based in Portland. Resurrecting the lost parts of the system will take a lot of time and money, he says, but there’s no way to restore the lost scientific data.
“The GoMOOS systems deserve to be funded and I’m fighting to make sure they are,” U.S Representative Chellie Pingree (Democrat) told Down East. “They are critical to the marine infrastructure of the state of Maine”
That’s a tough fight. Despite years of lobbying and the vigorous support of Senator Olympia Snowe (ranking member of the Senate Oceans Subcommittee), Senator Susan Collins (now kingmaker at the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee), and Pingree’s predecessor, Tom Allen, GoMOOS and its sister systems across the country have been unable to secure long-term federal funding.
“The bottom line is that there is not enough money to create the ocean and coastal observation we need now to monitor climate change and to help develop offshore wind energy,” says Josie Quintrell, director of the National Federation of Regional Associations for Coastal and Ocean Observing, which happens to be based in Harpswell.
So who laid GoMOOS low?
The underlying culprit is the U.S. Congress, which has never passed legislation to adequately fund the national system of which it is part. Congressional sources from both parties say that for years House measures were blocked by Congressman Richard Pombo (R-California), whose anti-environmental views led Rolling Stone to dub him the “Enemy of the Earth.” Until 2006, when Pombo lost his seat, GoMOOS and its ten counterparts across the nation survived onCongressional earmarks.
Since then, matters have gotten worse. With earmarks in disrepute, ocean observing systems were folded into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where they have subsisted on a starvation budget. Under the budget set by the previous presidential administration, NOAA assigned just $20.4 million to maintain all the nation’s existing networks and to develop new ones, a project the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy recommended to receive five hundred million dollars a year.
“The challenge in creating a national system with finite resources is you have to make a decision that you favor a few and fund none in some areas [of the country],” says Suzanne Skelley, deputy director of NOAA’s year-old Integrated Ocean Observing System Program. “We made choices to develop a national endeavor and that meant making some difficult choices.”
In effect, the federal government is letting much of GoMOOS die on the vine to make resources available to other parts of the country that haven’t yet built such a successful system. While GoMOOS buoys are being pulled, NOAA is paying to deploy new buoys off Alaska and Puerto Rico, to launch new gilder missions off Hawaii, and to survey coastal Washington state for new ocean observing radar stations.
Of course, such choices wouldn’t be necessary if the program weren’t so critically under-funded, a situation a president, commerce secretary, or NOAA administrator could easily reverse while drafting the annual budget. Under George W. Bush, top NOAA officials wouldn’t even provide Congress with an official estimate of the cost of adequately funding a national network, prompting Snowe and fifteen of her Senate colleagues to publicly rebuke them in September.
So where’s the cavalry? Sources say Congress can’t act any earlier than 2010, leaving two possibilities: an increased appropriation in President Barack Obama’s first budget or the assignment of some of the $830 million given to NOAA in the economic stimulus package, nearly a third of which was originally supposed to go to the very sort of long term climate monitoring that GoMOOS does.
“Talk about shovel ready,” says Quintrell, who says ocean operating systems are the key to infrastructure. “These buoys are out there, but somewhere among the higher ups they’re not getting attention.”
So will NOAA use the money to save GoMOOS and build a national network at the same time? “The language in the recovery act is pretty broad,” NOAA spokesman David Miller says as this issue went to press. “We’re working internally on a spending plan, but we won’t have any details for at least thirty to sixty days.”
- By: Colin Woodard