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January 2012 Issue

Drawing on Ocean Research to Preserve Coral Reefs and Marine Environments

By Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.)
National Marine Sanctuary Caucus
U.S. House of Representatives

I am truly blessed to represent Florida's 18th Congressional district, which includes more than 265 miles of coastline in South Florida and the Florida Keys, one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the nation. The Florida Keys contains about 1,700 islands that are exposed portions of an ancient coral reef and home to the southernmost point of the continental United States in Key West.

The Keys also has the second largest marine preserve in America, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuary covers almost 3,000 square nautical miles and surrounds the entire Florida Keys island chain. It protects ecosystems and thousands of marine species in Florida Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Many residents depend on the sanctuary for their livelihood and recreation.

This sanctuary is also home to NOAA's Aquarius Reef Base, the world's only operating undersea research laboratory. Aquarius has supported more than 90 missions, producing some 300 peer-reviewed scientific publications on a wide array of marine issues. The laboratory also supports one of the longest running and detailed coral reef monitoring programs in the world.

Supporting Scientific Research
At Aquarius, scientists can carry out saturation dives to conduct research on the reef for up to nine hours a day. This increased research time is the key for enhancing scientific productivity on dives.

I have twice had the opportunity to participate in dives to Aquarius and learn about its mission, see its resources, and to help promote its education and outreach efforts. As a member of Congress, I will continue to make it my mission to protect aquatic ecological treasures and research programs and laboratories like Aquarius that ensure that future generations are able to enjoy these natural wonders.

National Marine Sanctuary Caucus
As part of my passion for preserving the environment, I serve as co-chair of the National Marine Sanctuary Caucus, a bipartisan coalition of members of Congress dedicated to increasing awareness and strengthening commitment to our nation's cherished marine sanctuaries.

The caucus promotes understanding how national marine sanctuaries help safeguard our natural heritage and economic well-being. It also serves to inform local communities about the importance of maintaining these ecosystems for future generations, as well as educates members of Congress on the importance of marine sanctuary protection.

Given that this session of Congress has been so heavily budget-focused, Sanctuary Caucus members and staff had very few opportunities to move these issues forward. The caucus has planned to have a meeting in January to discuss future efforts.

Legislative Efforts and Programs
Across the globe, we have had many collaborative successes in protecting our environment, yet, there is much more we must accomplish. The heart of my community, the heart of any community, is its lands, green spaces and waters. I have worked equally hard on both the domestic and international front to support policies that ensure robust, and most importantly, feasible conservation efforts.

Last May, I introduced H.R. 2047, the Caribbean Coral Reef Protection Act, which amends the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 and would allow the U.S. to apply certain punitive measures against companies and individuals whom are investing in the Cuban regime's oil drilling sector. The bill was referred to the House Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit in July.

Under the legislation, which was also introduced in the previous two sessions of Congress, the president would be required to impose sanctions on any person who has made an investment of $1 million or more that contributes to the development of petroleum resources off Cuba's coasts or has trafficked in confiscated U.S. property. It would also require reports from the Secretary of State that describe any such investments and an assessment of the impact any such development of petroleum resources has on Cuba's coast and Florida's marine environment. Additionally, the bill would deny visas to any alien (and his or her spouse and children) determined to have participated in an investment of $1 million or more that contributes to the development of petroleum resources off Cuba's coasts.

Because of my personal experiences and through my position as the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I have been a vocal advocate for safeguarding our natural habitats and in preservation and restoration efforts. From issues such as coral bleaching to controlling water quality and opposing the devastating effects of offshore oil drilling in the Florida Keys, I know that there are significant threats faced by coral reef systems and our oceans.

I will continue to support innovative laboratories, such as Aquarius, that are crucial to environmental stewardship and oceans research. However, we must never forget that preserving these natural habitats and conserving endangered and threatened fish, wildlife and plants will require a dedicated collection of civic-minded individuals, organizations and elected officials all working together toward this goal.

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