Congress celebrated its new spring ritual last week: approving yearly funding for the federal government—half a year late--after months of heated debate over spending levels and policy issues. For the oceans and for environmental programs more broadly, the news is good! Congress rejected the deep funding cuts proposed by the Trump administration and dropped dozens of harmful anti-environmental policy provisions, known as policy “riders,” from the bill.
Last year, and again this year, President Trump’s budget called for massive cuts to ocean programs, risking marine life and coastal economies. The President proposed slashing the budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the nation’s premier agency for ocean management and research, by 16 percent in 2018 and 19 percent in 2019. He also proposed eliminating all funding for the Marine Mammal Commission, an independent agency that provides science-based oversight of U.S. and international policies regarding human impacts on marine mammals and their ocean environment.
In the meantime, Congress has been considering a series of bills to fund federal agencies in 2018. The bills contained deep cuts in environmental programs—although not as draconian as the President’s proposals—and included dozens of policy “riders” to weaken or eliminate environmental protections, such as safeguards for endangered species.
Almost all those damaging budget cuts and anti-environmental riders fell by the wayside last week as Congress completed the “omnibus” funding bill for 2018. NOAA programs largely received increases rather than cuts, and the Marine Mammal Commission maintained its current funding level at $3.4 million. Across the federal agencies, including the besieged Environmental Protection Agency, environmental programs were saved from the ax. Harmful policy riders were almost eliminated from the bill, other than provisions carried forward from previous years.
On the topic of seafood fraud, the bill included a much-needed expansion to NOAA’s Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP), the new seafood traceability regulations which Oceana fought long and hard to help establish. SIMP requires catch reporting and traceability for some imported seafood at risk of illegal fishing and seafood fraud.
SIMP went into effect in January, but the implementation for two species – shrimp and abalone – was paused indefinitely until comparable traceability requirements were developed for domestically-farmed shrimp and abalone. The funding bill directs NOAA to establish new regulations and include shrimp and abalone in the program this year. The new reporting and traceability requirements are a major step forward in reducing seafood fraud, since shrimp is our number one seafood import in the United States. The funding bill also included an additional $1.2 million for implementation of the program, helping to ensure that the seafood sold in the United States is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled.
Many ocean conservation initiatives, such as traceability requirements for seafood, enjoy bipartisan support in Congress. However, throughout the budget cycle, Republican leaders in Congress supported deep cuts in conservation programs and anti-environmental riders. The positive outcome on this bill is due in large part to Democratic congressional leaders, who pushed throughout the process for reasonable domestic funding levels and against anti-environmental riders.
Most of all, thank YOU—Oceana supporters and concerned citizens—for the good outcome on this important funding bill. Earlier this month, more than 30,000 Wavemakers called or emailed their representatives to voice their opposition to anti-environmental riders attempting to undermine the Endangered Species Act. You stood up for ocean conservation and the environment, and you prevailed in getting your elected representatives to do the same. Thanks in part to your efforts, the U.S. Congress rejected more than a dozen provisions to weaken the Endangered Species Act.
Your voices have made a huge difference in the past, and they will continue to make a difference into the future. We cannot rest on our past successes— Congress is already working on the funding bills for 2019—but I know that together we can again achieve good results.
For the oceans,
Lara Levison, Senior Director, Federal Policy