Study Of Endangered Elkhorn Coral Halted By Government Shutdown

This undated photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows an elkhorn coral, found in Florida a
This undated photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows an elkhorn coral, found in Florida and the Caribbean, now has a spot on the federal threatened list because of dangers posed by human activity, hurricanes and higher water temperatures.The elkhorn and staghorn coral species have suffered a 97 percent decline in areas off the Florida Keys and in the Caribbean since 1985 and must be protected, National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Stephania Bolden said Friday, May 5, 2006. (AP Photo/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

"Personally, I'm extremely frustrated," Margaret Miller told The Huffington Post. "Because Congress isn't capable of doing their jobs, I get prevented from doing mine."

Miller is one Miamian affected by the federal government shutdown. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ecologist, she studies and surveys endangered elkhorn corals from the agency's labs on Virginia Key.

The work is essential to ecosystems and economies in South Florida and beyond. "Over the last 10,000 years, elkhorn coral has been one of the three most important Caribbean corals contributing to reef growth and development," the NOAA website explains.

"Populations have collapsed from disease outbreaks with losses compounded locally by hurricanes, increased predation, bleaching, elevated temperatures and other factors," according to the website.

The mandate to study endangered species is a federal one, however, and Miller is a federal employee. Though the rest of her research team could theoretically continue working -- they are University of Miami employees and students paid by a federal grant under a previous budget -- rules of the shutdown deny them access to NOAA's labs, boats, computers and equipment.

Miller's group not only surveys elkhorn's current population but studies its resilience and restoration possibilities. They were in the midst of a survey of 300 tagged colonies in the field, part of observation that has happened three times a year since 2004, when they were forced by the shutdown to abandon their work. "A lot of the important stuff government does as science is long-term evaluation," she explained.

The damage to in-progress testing and research will depend on how long the shutdown lasts.

"A day or two just causes a lot of inefficiencies, but long-term there's a lot of consequences ... Some of it is just delayed, and some of it is more serious," Miller said.

"On the internal side, your agency understands that we know we have a gap in the data because we couldn't help it. But when you go to publish that work or submit to reviewers or publishers, it's no good. And that's where scientists are really put in a bind by this situation: Scientific implementation is curtailed and it jeopardizes long-term data sets."

NOAA's Miami labs also are focused on endangered sea turtles and mammals, fish populations and ecology, the health of local estuaries, and more.

Research that factors into the larger Everglades restoration plan also has been halted; one team was set to sample mangroves in a nearby estuary during the first two weeks of October as it has for 15 years. Missing such seasonal windows, Miller said, "is a real impairment of our scientific endeavor."



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