|  December 21, 2014  |  
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Commerce Secretary to Murkowski: Debris Aid Increasing 20%

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senator Lisa Murkowski today questioned Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank on several critical ocean policies facing Alaskan coastal communities during a Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, and was informed that NOAA’s national marine debris removal program is being increased twenty percent, mostly to deal with tsunami debris.

Among the topics raised in a rapid-fire question and answer period were: tsunami marine debris relief; issues surrounding the North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program and an update on the controversial coastal and marine spatial planning program.

In her questioning, Senator Murkowski pressed Secretary Blank on how NOAA planned to respond to incoming tsunami marine debris floating west to the United States. “An estimated 1.5 million tons of debris is floating out there in the ocean,” said Senator Murkowski. “We’ve seen it come up on the shores in Hawaii, out in Oregon, in Alaska, and we know it will still come our way years after the fact.” Secretary Blank indicated the Commerce Department is working to provide increased funding levels to deal with future marine debris in impacted states, bumping up its funding from $5 million to $6 million in FY14.

Senator Murkowski on Japanese Tsunami Marine Debris

Senator Murkowski asked for details on NOAA’s North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program, which in January was expanded to include groundfish vessels under 60 feet, and commercial halibut vessels. While Senator Murkowski recognizes the importance of scientific data to better manage our fisheries, she is concerned that the agency is not working quickly enough to implement an electronic monitoring (EM) option for Alaskan vessels.  Today, Senator Murkowski asked Secretary Blank for a commitment for faster implementation of an EM system.

“Electronic monitoring is the option that Alaskans are very interested in,” said Senator Murkowski. “We’ve been told that the electronic monitoring option is going to be forthcoming, but it seems that not only is the process slow, it gives the appearance that NOAA is putting impediments in implementing the observer program.”

Senator Murkowski on NOAA’s North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program

Lastly, Murkowski asked for details on Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning, a program created by President Obama last year through Executive Order. The program, which Alaskans have consistently rejected, calls for regional bodies across the United States to address issues in the ocean for fishing, transportation, energy and recreation. Murkowski continued to raise her concerns that regional plans could potentially designate areas that are prime for offshore renewable energy development and set aside other areas that are vital fish habitat.

“I’m told that the administration is on the verge here of releasing its National Ocean Policy implementation plan, and that Alaska will in fact be excluded from the requirement to form a regional planning body, said Senator Murkowski. “It’s been represented to us that those states that don’t want to participate will not have to participate.”

Senator Murkowski on the Concerns Surround the Implementation of Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning

While Acting Secretary Blank could not confirm this understanding with Senator Murkowski because it is a decision that lies within the Obama administration’s Council of Economic Quality, Murkowski reminded her that “we’re monitoring this very carefully and we’re being told that states that don’t want to participate don’t have to participate.”

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