Catch-22: Feds cut climate research to save fuel

June 18, 2008 6:06:10 PM PDT
They haven't rechristened a ship the Irony, but federal researchers are canceling and cutting back on voyages aimed at studying climate change and ocean ecosystems so they can save money on boat fuel.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has scrapped at least four trips nationwide and is shortening others "because of the increase in petroleum prices," chief spokesman Anson Franklin said Wednesday.

"We're trying to determine whether we can move some resources around to keep some missions going," Franklin said, adding that NOAA was working this week to hammer out a budget, taking into account the rising cost of fuel for the fleet.

In a June 10 e-mail to NOAA field offices and others, portions of which were obtained by The Associated Press, NOAA warned of an "approximate" $1.7 million budget shortfall due to fuel costs, and noted the agency has proposed cutting 231 ocean research days for the year.

"I only dread to look ahead to 2009 if we do not get funding relief for fuel and marine operations," read the e-mail sent by John Oliver, a NOAA deputy assistant administrator.

Franklin confirmed the e-mail's authenticity but noted that the figures are preliminary.

"The research that we do is some of the most important operations so we're going to try to keep as many of them on course as we can," Franklin said. He said some canceled trips may be reinstated but others could be cut.

In the South, NOAA has dropped at least two research trips - a Gulf of Mexico marine mammal cruise and one on fish larvae adrift in ocean currents - for a total loss of about 95 days at sea, said James Bohnsack, a NOAA fisheries biologist in Miami.

Bohnsack noted the studies were set to look at the affects of hurricanes, disease, algae blooms and even climate change on the mammals and larvae.

"These are critical to us," Bohnsack said. "We won't have any information at all this year on them."

Two other trips have been canceled in Alaska, a salmon survey in the Bering Sea and a North Pacific marine ecosystem study.

Last week, NOAA canceled a June 30 research trip off the Northeast coast to study the effects of climate change and other factors on clams from Delaware to Canada. The region produces the clams most commonly found in mass-produced foods such as canned soups and sauces, a $60 million a year industry.

The agency reinstated that voyage Wednesday after the AP inquired about the cutbacks.

"That's very good news," said Dan Furlong, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. "We'd really be behind the eight ball if we didn't get this survey done this year."