Everything You Need to Know About How a Government Shutdown Will Affect the Ocean

If Congress can’t reach consensus on a government funding bill by the end of today, the federal government will shut down. Today is the last day of the federal government’s fiscal year, and Congress hasn’t passed any bills yet to … well … pay the bills and keep the government functioning. So unless Congress gets its act together really fast (and it doesn’t look like that’s very likely), we’ll have a government shutdown starting tomorrow.

Regardless of your views on who’s at fault or your opinion on the fight over Obamacare, the result of a shutdown is clear: Many of the federal agencies that manage our ocean environment will close up shop and send their employees home.

So here’s a look at which of the government’s ocean activities would stay open, which would be shuttered and what a government shutdown looks like for the ocean:

How do we know which parts of the government will stay open?

As you might expect, shutting down something as huge and far-reaching as the federal government is no small task. And because a government shutdown appeared to be looming, the Office of Management and Budget (which is part of the Executive Office of the President) asked all federal agencies to develop contingency plans for a shutdown. These plans detail what stays open, what gets closed, who goes home and what jobs get left undone.

Will a shutdown affect endangered species or marine mammals?

Luckily, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) law enforcement officers who are charged with protecting endangered species, critical habitats, and protected ocean and coastal areas such as national marine sanctuaries will remain on the job. Many Fish & Wildlife Service law enforcement officers who protect coastal species like sea turtles will also remain at their posts throughout a shutdown.

However, most longer-term management activities for endangered species and marine mammals—such as Endangered Species Act consultations, Marine Mammal Protection Act stock assessments, and the development and implementation of Endangered Species Act Recovery Plans—will all come to a halt during a shutdown.

Will there still be forecasts for weather and ocean conditions?

NOAA’s National Weather Service will continue functioning. Personnel will still be on hand to monitor for tsunamis and issue warnings if such an event occurs. And NOAA’s National Ocean Service will continue essential services important for shipping and human health such as real-time water level data, critical nautical chart updates and harmful algal bloom forecasting.

What about the Coast Guard and law enforcement on the ocean?

According to the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard will only maintain emergency response, maritime safety and search-and-rescue activities that are “necessary for safety of life and protection of property.”

Fisheries enforcement patrols will be cut back drastically. Maintenance to navigation buoys will be curtailed. Services to shippers and recreational boaters like issuing or renewing licensing or seaman documentation will be stopped.

It’s unclear to what extent oil spill preparedness and response will be impacted. Law enforcement activities from NOAA and Fish and Wildlife Service will continue.

What will happen with federally managed fisheries?

For fisheries in federal waters, a government shutdown will likely cause a suite of delays and inconveniences. Coast Guard services will be delayed or shut down, and law enforcement patrols reduced. NOAA law enforcement will continue, as will essential management services from the National Marine Fisheries Service such as quota monitoring, fisheries observers and regulatory actions to prevent overfishing.

But a whole bundle of ongoing fisheries management activities like stock assessments, National Environmental Policy Act reviews and the preparation of Fishery Management Plans will likely come to a halt, ultimately delaying management decisions.

How will it impact offshore oil and gas drilling?

For offshore energy, it’s a mixed bag. Offshore renewable energy activities would be halted. Work on many offshore oil and gas drilling processes, like work on the National Environmental Policy Act will come to a stop, which would cause delays for companies seeking permits to drill. But emergency response personnel would remain on-hand, and some permitting actions necessary to facilitate safe ongoing drilling operations would continue.

Will it halt NOAA’s ocean research?

For the most part, the federal government’s ocean research activities will be shut down. NOAA’s research vessels will all be ordered to return to port, scientific staff will be sent home, and research efforts will be wound down. Some NOAA employees who maintain long-term experiments, manage the constant stream of long-term climate data from our satellites or who are funded through mechanisms other than the federal appropriations process may be allowed to stay on the job. But there’s no doubt that a government shutdown would be a blow to ongoing federal ocean research efforts.

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