Thursday, February 22, 2018
Opinion

Maxwell: Trump should not cut Sea Grant Program

Among the casualties of President Donald Trump's budget slashing would be the national Sea Grant College Program. This cut reflects a lack of understanding about the program's importance and makes no sense.

Established in 1966 by President Lyndon Johnson, the program supports coastal research at 33 universities nationwide. One of the main reasons for this environmental program — ironic since Trump is all about business — is to "foster economic competitiveness." Another reason for the program is to "provide for the understanding and wise use of ocean, coastal and Great Lakes resources."

Its budget, never slashed by another president, would be part of a 17 percent cut for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which, ironically again, is part of the Commerce Department.

Such a cut should have been expected. NOAA is a major supporter of environmental research, which includes climate change. The Trump administration is no friend of science or the environment.

The vital purpose of Sea Grant is clear. It works to create and maintain healthy coastal environments and economies. This brings us to Florida and why all Floridians should be concerned about Trump's foolhardy effort that would kill Florida Sea Grant. Based at the University of Florida, it is one of the oldest and largest coastal ecosystem programs nationwide.

In case we forget, Florida is a peninsula. Some 20 million of us live on a narrow strip of land bordered by water on three sides. We depend on water, and water is us. We are almost all coast and our coast is our most densely populated area, spanning many counties. Add to that, more than 80 million tourists come to our coasts each year.

"This concentration of people, activities and economies contributes to more than 80 percent — almost $562 billion — to the state's economy annually," according to a Sea Grant Florida report.

The report also states that Sea Grant "helps balance the growth of local economies with protection of the coastal environment. It has become the 'go to' organization around the state on a wide range of issues affecting economic prosperity of coastal communities and businesses, as well as the protection of natural resources."

Anyone who wants to see the benefit of a Sea Grant project should visit Cedar Key. When Florida banned gill nets 22 years ago, the fishing industry in Cedar Key pretty much died. UF Sea Grant researchers helped the small community replace commercial fishing with aquaculture, specifically clam farming.

Today, Cedar Key is among the most productive clam farming regions in the United States, with a statewide impact of more than $50 million. The industry provides more 550 jobs on the island alone.

Cedar Key is just one example of an area that benefits from Sea Grant. The program has helped many other small and rural waterfront regions in Florida struggling to survive as a result of dwindling fish stocks and hazards such as increasing erosion.

During the two years I lived and wrote as a volunteer writer in Everglades National Park, I saw some of the many benefits of Sea Grant in South Florida. These benefits include supporting the lucrative boating industry and protecting our fragile marine habitats. One of the most impressive efforts is the establishment of artificial reefs that provide breeding grounds for many species of ocean creatures that wind up on our menus.

Under Trump's proposal, all $73 million of Sea Grant funding would be eliminated. This would destroy thousands of jobs and initiate severe environmental degradation. The $73 million figure could change after NOAA and the White House begin negotiations. Whatever the outcome of the talks, Congress will have the final word.

Floridians should be worried and outraged. It is no secret that the Trump administration is obsessed with deregulation and is opposed to science. We live on a peninsula where science is reality, and the nation's Sea Grant Program remains as it always has been: Too important to eliminate.

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