The National Sea Grant College Program has a significant hand in how a lot of states manage their coasts and their fisheries — Georgia’s partnership between the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant conducts all manner of activities along the coast, including out of its Brunswick Station on Bay Street.

However, the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2020 budget eliminates federal funding for the Sea Grant program. That was one of several topics of discussion Wednesday in a hearing of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife.

House Resolution 2405 reauthorizes the National Sea Grant Program Act and has bipartisan sponsorship, although none of the co-sponsors are from Southeastern states. Its lead sponsor, U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., is the subcommittee chairman. Huffman asked the deputy administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, retired Navy Rear Adm. Timothy Gallaudet, the importance of the program to NOAA.

“The Sea Grant program is yielding great benefits for our blue economy this year,” Gallaudet said. “We have activities going on in all coastal states and the Great Lakes states through sea grant to support fishing, tourism and recreation, and safety of our fisheries. So, we think the program has performed well. We do not fund it in FY ’20, due to the prioritization of other core services at NOAA and in the administration, other activities such as national and homeland defense.”

U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., said Virginia is No. 1 in both clam and oyster aquaculture thanks to Sea Grant implementation through educational bodies like the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and in cooperation with the private sector.

Georgia is looking to get in on some of those oyster aquaculture dollars through a state-regulated program. Gov. Brian Kemp just recently signed the bill that passed the General Assembly that legalized oyster farming, House Bill 501. Detractors of the bill hoped Kemp would veto it, so better legislation could be passed in coming General Assembly sessions.

Gallaudet said domestic aquaculture is a priority for Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

“In fact, the secretary has committed to reducing the nation’s seafood deficit, and we will do that by growing a domestic aquaculture industry,” Gallaudet said. “So, we are taking great action to do that, including trying to streamline permitting, as well as advancing aquaculture research. Sea Grant has contributed to that, but NOAA has other efforts within NOAA Fisheries, within the National Ocean Service, to advance aquaculture, the science, as well as supporting business development.”

He said NOAA expects that without federal money, state funds would continue to support the Sea Grant program. Gallaudet also noted Sea Grant works as an important data collection and analysis utility for fishery management.

Other legislation discussed Wednesday, H.R. 2189 — called the Digital Coast Act — would have NOAA establish “a constituent-driven program to provide a digital information platform capable of efficiently integrating coastal data with decision-support tools, training and best practices and to support collection of priority coastal geospatial data to inform and improve local, state, regional and federal capacities to manage the coastal region.”

U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., dismissed the idea behind the legislation by describing it as authorizing $4 million annually for an already-existing program that’s been operating within existing funds since 2007.

Gallaudet, though, said this legislation, and another bill — H.R. 1314, which reauthorizes the Integrated Coastal and Ocean Observation System Act — are necessary.

“Both pieces of legislation support programs that are fundamental in providing data through networks to meet the nation’s needs,” Gallaudet said. “Through community outreach and partner-based services, the data these programs produce are used by decision-makers to address changing environmental conditions and drive economic growth.

“The data we collected and shared were vital to the life-saving work of NOAA and our partners during the hurricane seasons of 2017 and 2018, and have contributed to a growing, vibrant, American blue economy.”

Sarah Newkirk, director of disaster resilience for the Nature Conservancy, testified to the work she and others conducted in 2007 regarding coastal flood risk, and mitigation, like conservation investments in living shorelines.

“NOAA was our first partner in that effort, and they helped us access digital elevation data, make projections of economic losses from flooding, and project flood inundation scenarios over digital elevation maps so that we could then go out and train communities to use this information to plan for their own risks,” Newkirk said.

That work, in New York, became handy five years later in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

“I was heartened to learn that the evacuations and recovery efforts were made easier by the maps we developed in partnership with NOAA,” Newkirk said. “And on top of that, our science showed that investments in wetland protection before Sandy saved $625 million in property damage during the disaster.”

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