Bills move forward to aid oceans as experts gather on Capitol Hill

Dr. Mike Heithaus, dean of the College of Arts, Sciences & Education (CASE) at FIU, speaking at the Capitol Hill Ocean Week. Photo by William Prego

For the first time in 10 years, the U.S. House of Representatives passed four bipartisan bills related to ocean acidification – which occurs when there is an increase in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and that affects not only ocean temperature but sea life.

The legislation establishes an advisory board to expand research on ocean and coastal acidification and work closely with coastal states. It also sets up a data archive system to monitor the issue, of keen concern in Florida for the communities and industries that depend on the state’s waterways for tourism and jobs.

Coral reefs in South Florida, for instance, generate nearly $5 billion in local sales, $2 billion in local income and more than 70,000 jobs, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington. Florida is the only state in the continental United States to have vast shallow coral reef formations near its coasts.

Florida legislators said it is imperative to get ahead of the issue before it becomes untenable.

“Improving water quality is a critical priority for Florida’s coast,” said Rep. Michael Waltz (R-St. Augustine Beach), a co-sponsor of the bills. “Waterways are essential to our community’s growth and prosperity. We need to prevent red tide and harmful algal blooms, not just monitor or react to these issues.”

The legislation now heads to the U.S. Senate.

At the same time, Florida International University participated in Capitol Hill Ocean Week, an annual gathering in the nation’s capital of researchers, wildlife experts, climate scientists, fishing industry leaders and conservationists to discuss ocean management issues.

“One of our big areas of focus in the college is environmental protection which is good for the environment but it’s also good for the people that depend on it which is everyone; and part of that is reversing species extinction,” said Dr. Mike Heithaus, dean of the College of Arts, Sciences & Education, and a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, who presented current and future research projects regarding conservation and ocean ecosystems.

FIU facilitates a marine biology program that is home to the world’s only underwater research laboratory. It uses satellite tagging to track species or animals “and map out the proportions of time they spend in each area to help improve existing marine protected areas or identify areas where, should an MPA [Marine Protected Area] be put in place, it would greatly benefit the conservation of a particular species,” conservation biologist Dr. Mark Bond said.

Oceans cover more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, and Capitol Hill Ocean Week is an opportunity to bring those who are focused on ocean issues to Washington to interact with federal agencies and members of Congress to gain more awareness for underwater ecosystems, said Heithaus, who added that FIU is playing a role in trying to slow and prevent sea level rise, which is a growing concern in South Florida.

“Our Institute for Water Environment and Sea Level Solutions Center is trying to provide the data to help policy makers make the right policies to aid local communities come up with the right programs to help people adapt and local homeowners plan because we are already feeling the effects of sea level rise.”

William Prego is a reporter in the South Florida Media Network’s Washington, D.C., Bureau.

William Prego is a senior at Florida International University, studying journalism. He takes pride in writing and reporting news that must be heard and read by those who seek information. William is dedicated to providing insightful and inspirational writing to the South Florida community.