Budget Squeeze Has Cali Ocean Mappers Feeling Lost

California marine scientists have encountered some rough seas lately, following the state finance department's decision last month to freeze all funding derived from the sale of bonds. That decision was a response to the state's dismal financial situation: A projected $40 billion budget deficit and sinking credit rating have scuttled the state's ability to sell bonds to raise capital for projects that include freeway repairs and library construction. Thanks to several conservation-minded propositions passed by California voters in recent years, these bond-funded projects include dozens of studies aimed at documenting and protecting the state's natural resources.

Researchers were ordered to stop work immediately, says Rikk Kvitek of California State University, Monterey Bay, a principal investigator on a $20 million sea-floor mapping program funded by the state (see above.)  A major goal of the project is to create high-resolution digital maps to aid in establishing a statewide network of marine protected areas. "We had a 200-foot vessel that was collecting data along the north coast" when the stop-work order came through on 18 December, Kvitek says. "On the 19th, they had to just go into port." Kvitek has managed to find temporary funding so that 15 students and staff members in his lab can keep working on data analysis, but he says that money will last only 2 or 3 months.

At the University of California, Santa Cruz, marine ecologist Mark Carr has already had to let four technicians go. Carr works on a state-funded project to monitor ecosystems inside and outside marine protected areas on the California coast. The goal of the $8 million, 8-year project is to collect baseline data that can be used to assess whether the protected areas are working as intended. But for now, the entire project is on hold, and Carr says he's worried that the longer the budget impasse continues, the harder it will be to start it up again. Carr oversees survey work in shallow reefs and kelp forests, and he relies on a crew of 15 highly trained scuba divers to collect data. "If I can't continue [paying] the people I have, I will have to rehire a new group and train them to do the monitoring," he says. "Those are difficult positions to fill."

He and other affected researchers say they've heard nothing definitive from the state about when their funding might be restored. With the governor and state legislators at loggerheads over how to close the budget gap—a necessary first step toward restoring the state's credit rating and restoring its ability to sell bonds—there may be more rough sailing ahead.