US lawmakers propose budget cut to NOAA Fisheries for 2024

US lawmakers propose budget cut to NOAA Fisheries for 2024

NOAA Fisheries is likely to receive a budget cut in the 2024 fiscal year, with the U.S. Senate considering legislation providing a slight reduction in funding and the U.S. House considering even bigger cuts across NOAA.

On 13 July, the Senate Appropriations Committee released its Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Fiscal Year 2024 Appropriations Bill, which includes funding for NOAA and NOAA Fisheries. The committee approved the bill in a 28-1 vote, clearing the way for consideration by the full Senate. A House subcommittee approved its version in a vote on 13 July on a voice vote with only a few audible dissents.

The Senate bill provides USD 6.5 billion (EUR 5.8 billion) for NOAA, USD 301 million (EUR 268 million), or 4.4 percent, less than the agency asked for in its 2024 budget request, but 2.4 percent more than Congress gave the agency for 2023. The House bill cuts the agency’s budget by USD 771 million (EUR 686 million), 12.4 percent lower that provided for 2023. That’s nearly  USD 1.4 billion (EUR 1.2 billion ) less than the agency asked for in its budget request.

As part of their debt-ceiling compromise in early June, the White House and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-California) agreed to limit discretionary spending for fiscal 2024, forcing the cuts.

“I know the caps in the deal President Biden and Speaker McCarthy struck are not what we all would have preferred,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Washington) said in a statement. “I’ve spoken at length about my concerns about how these caps limit our ability to invest in our country’s future. And my concerns have not disappeared.”

While the House has included even deeper cuts in its budget, the Senate is largely sticking to the budget outlined in the agreement.

“So here in the Senate, we are moving ahead, to make full use of all the resources in the debt-ceiling agreement, honor its terms, and write the strongest possible bills while lessening the blow of the cuts and caps which are tough across the board—and especially on so many of our vital nondefense priorities,” she added.

The House Appropriations Committee has not released its full report on the legislation detailing spending, but the Senate Appropriations Committee has, and it includes a small budget cut for NOAA Fisheries.

Of the USD 6.5 billion (EUR 5.8 billion) allocated for NOAA, the Senate bill appropriated USD 1.1 billion (EUR 978 million) for NOAA Fisheries, USD 42 million (EUR 37 million), or 3.6 percent, less than the agency requested and USD 19 million (EUR 17 million), or 1.7 percent, less than what was appropriated for fiscal 2023. 

The biggest changes in the report from NOAA’s budget request for NOAA Fisheries: the removal by the Senate of USD 27.7 million (EUR 24.6 million) from the USD 189 million (EUR 168 million) requested for fisheries and ecosystem science programs and services; the USD 16.6 million (EUR 14.8 million) removed from the USD 222 million (EUR 198 million) requested for fisheries data collections, surveys, and assessments; and the USD 11.6 million (EUR 10.3 million) removed from the USD 150 million (EUR 133 million) requested for fisheries management programs and services. A few budget lines saw small increases: Senators added USD 13 million (EUR 11.6 million) to the USD 166 million (EUR 148 million) requested for protection marine mammals, sea turtles, and other species – with nearly a third of the increase going to North Atlantic right whale research and conservation efforts – and nearly 5 million (EUR 4.4 million) to the USD 19 million (EUR 17 million) requested for aquaculture.

In addition, the committee recommended USD 65 million (EUR 58 million) for the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, USD 300 (EUR 267,000) for fisheries disaster assistance, and USD 349,000 (EUR 310,665) for the Fishermen’s Contingency Fund. Those numbers are unchanged from NOAA’s budget request.

The Senate Appropriations Committee report includes around 60 provisions on how NOAA Fisheries must spend the money, including reducing the risk of commercial fishing to North American right whales, improving the agency’s capacity for conducting fisheries surveys, and promoting the domestic shrimping industry.

“The committee continues to be concerned with the lack of a level playing field for U.S. seafood industry,” the lawmakers stated in the report. “The committee is concerned that recent surges in shrimp imports have flooded the U.S. market and overwhelmed domestic inventories to the point that U.S. shrimp processors no longer purchase domestic products.”

In response, the committee directs NOAA Fisheries to ensure the National Seafood Strategy, currently under development, does not promote the sale of imported seafood. Lawmakers also said they were “eagerly” awaiting a NOAA report on establishing a National Seafood Council to support a domestic seafood marketing campaign.

The Senate bill also increases spending on right whale research, monitoring, and conservation efforts by USD 4 million (EUR 3.6 million). The bill also provides USD 30 million (EUR 26.7 million) for testing and equipping innovative gear that reduces the risk of entanglements and similar efforts. The report also encourages NOAA Fisheries abandon its “worst-case” scenario standard for evaluating risk in the jonah crab and lobster industries, which last month was rejected by the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in a major win for those fishermen. U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) added language including the jonah crab fishery in the provision.

However, language inserted by U.S. senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), John Boozman (R-Arkansas), and Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) interferes with the agency’s ongoing efforts to reduce speed limits to help prevent vessel strikes on whales. The trio of senators accused NOAA Fisheries of not seeking enough input from commercial fishermen and recreational boaters and directed the agency to engage more with those stakeholders before adopting any rules. The three senators also want NOAA Fisheries to create a pilot program for  tracking invidual right whales, providing real-time locations to boaters to help them avoid the mammals. 

Lawmakers also expressed frustration at NOAA for “not prioritizing and maintaining the needed level of fisheries survey coverage,” despite being given extra money by Congress for that purpose in recent years. Several fisheries survey trips have recently been canceled due to vessel maintenance issues.

“The committee is increasingly concerned that federal vessel-based fisheries surveys necessary for determining the sustainable and optimal harvest rates for commercial fisheries have been cancelled with increasing frequency in recent years, without effective contingency plans for covering the resulting data gaps,” the senators wrote.

The committee called any reduction in survey coverage “fundamentally unacceptable,” and directed NOAA Fisheries to conduct a minimum of six Alaska bottom-trawl surveys and no fewer than four research vessels used for West Coast surveys. The legislation would also require NOAA to report to Congress on how it plans to provide redundancy for fisheries surveys by using contracted or uncrewed vessels.

On offshore wind, the committee provides flat funding for agency support of offshore wind expansion while directing NOAA Fisheries to work with other departments and industry on developing an entity that can assess mitigation and compensation claims for fisheries impacted by offshore wind projects.

Senators also directed NOAA Fisheries to direct money to specific projects, including U.S. senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Angus King (I-Maine) requesting USD 7 million (EUR 6.2 million) for the University of Maine’s Aquaculture Workforce Innovation Center.

This is the first time the Senate Appropriations Committee has completed a NOAA budget markup in two years, as Congress has relied on omnibus spending bills to pass appropriations. Both the House and Senate appropriation committees have already passed appropriations bills that include U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) funding, with the two versions in near-agreement on on USD 3.6 billion (EUR 3.25 billion) in funding, USD 360 million (EUR 330 million) shy of the administration’s budget request.

A note on numbers: The 2024 budget estimates in the Senate Appropriations Committee report differ from the topline numbers from NOAA’s public budget request. NOAA reports a topline budget estimate of 6.824 billion, while the SAC reports a budget estimate of USD 6.8 billion (EUR 6.1 billion). SAC did not include USD 1.6 million (EUR 1.4 million) for a Medicare fund, and it includes USD 15 million (EUR 13.3 million) taken from the Fisheries Finance Program Account that is not in the agency’s budget. For this story, the budget numbers in the SAC report were used for consistency.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock / DCStockPhotography


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