September 28, 2016

GAO Releases Reports Requested by Whitehouse, Merkley, Menendez on Climate Change & Oceans

Reports examine NOAA’s work to aid states in building coastal resiliency, account for climate change in fisheries management decisions

Washington, D.C. – This afternoon, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued two reports requested by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) efforts to promote states’ coastal resiliency work and to incorporate climate information into its fisheries management decisions.  The reports’ findings underscore the need for additional funding for projects that help safeguard coastal areas from climate change-related threats—such as severe storms and sea level rise—and for the development of guidance for the country’s eight Regional Fishery Management Councils to fully integrate climate science into their management practices.

“The carbon pollution we’re dumping into our atmosphere and oceans is already threatening our coastlines and causing big changes in our fisheries,” said Whitehouse, who has championed a permanent funding stream for oceans research and restoration, and succeeded in passing legislation to authorize coastal resiliency projects.  “The Government Accountability Office’s work shows that demand in the states for federal aid to protect their coastlines dramatically outstrips supply.  We need to do more to defend our cities, towns, and infrastructure from rising seas and the harsher storms we can expect.  We must also consider climate change if we want to maintain productive, sustainable fisheries.  Our fishermen depend on it.”

“Climate change and carbon pollution are already threatening our coastal economies,” said Merkley. “Ocean acidification caused by carbon pollution has the potential to devastate our coastal fishing economy by making waters uninhabitable for many species.  I have witnessed the impact climate change on Oregon’s hatcheries firsthand, some of whom have nearly been driven of business.  The GAO’s report further underscores the need for action and resources to take on this rapidly growing threat.”

“Our oceans and fisheries form the bedrock of our vibrant shore communities,” said Senator Menendez. “As we understand more about climate change and its impacts on marine ecosystems, it is critical that we incorporate this information into our management and mitigation strategies.  Whether it is protecting our shores from sea level rise and storms like Hurricane Sandy, or making sure that our fisheries remain productive for all the families whose livelihoods depend on them, we must do all that we can to adapt to our changing climate and limit the damage caused by rising temperatures.  I am pleased that GAO’s work will help federal agencies better understand and manage climate risks, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure that our states and local communities have the resources they need to meet these challenges head-on.”

Summaries and links to the reports are provided below. 

Climate Change – NOAA’s Support for States’ Marine Coastal Ecosystem Resilience Efforts

Certain ecosystems, like marshes and wetlands, play an important part in protecting coastal communities from climate-related threats like rising seas and increasingly frequent extreme weather.  This report examines NOAA’s performance in administering the partnerships it forms with states to make coastal areas more resilient to the consequences of climate change.  NOAA administers the partnerships by providing financial incentives and technical assistance.

While GAO provides no specific recommendations, the report underscores the need for additional federal funding to aid states in coastal resiliency efforts.  As one example of this, GAO notes that the National Ocean Service’s Regional Coastal Resilience Grant Program “received 132 qualified applications requesting a total of $105 million during its first application period in fiscal year 2015, when a total of $4.5 million was available for the grants.”  In spite of the small amount of grant funding NOAA is able to provide, “[o]officials from all 25 state coastal zone management programs said that financial assistance provided by NOAA has been critical for planning projects designed to enhance marine coastal ecosystem resilience and reduce the potential impacts of climate change,” GAO reports.

Read the full report here.

Federal Fisheries Management – Additional Actions Could Advance Efforts to Incorporate Climate Information into Management Decisions

Research has shown that climate change and carbon pollution are causing dramatic effects in our oceans.  Sea levels are rising, waters are warming, and oceans are acidifying, all of which have considerable consequence on fisheries.  This report looks at the information the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the country’s eight Regional Fishery Management Councils have available to gauge the effects of climate change on the nation’s fisheries, and how the NMFS has helped the councils incorporate this information into their management decisions.  To illustrate its findings, the report includes six case studies of particularly challenging species to manage, including walleye pollock, Atlantic cod, northern rock sole, black sea bass, summer flounder, and American lobster. 

GAO found that the NMFS and the management councils have limited information on the current and expected effects of climate change on the stocks they manage.  For example, managers in the Alaska region felt comfortable with the amount of climate change-related information they have to project future abundance for only 3 of the 35 stocks they manage.  The report also lists inadequate climate models as limiting factors in garnering a better understanding of climate change’s effects on fisheries.

In light of its findings, GAO recommends that NOAA develop guidance for the councils to incorporate climate change data into the fisheries management process and set performance measures for regional and agency-wide implementation of its climate science strategy. 

Read the full report here.

The reports follow another GAO study requested by the Senators that examined ocean acidification.


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