For the past six years, a network of high-tech buoys and radar stations has been providing a rich stream of data about conditions in the Gulf of Maine to fishermen, mariners, scientists and search and rescue personnel. But the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System (GoMoos) — and others like it across the country — may be forced to shut down their operations for lack of federal funding.

“We may be pulling out some of our buoys, or we may be pulling all of them,” says Tom Shyka, GoMoos’s chief operating officer. “We’re working on other funding opportunities to avoid that, but we’re definitely in a period of uncertainty.”

The Portland-based network was supposed to serve as the prototype of an integrated national system of ocean monitoring stations that would gather and process oceanographic information and release it free of charge to the public, much as the National Weather Service does with the atmosphere. Ten other regional ocean observing systems have been established across the U.S. and are in varying degrees of development.

Gathering such information is seen as a crucial step towards better managing the nation’s use of its oceans. Many of the nation’s fisheries have been fished into oblivion, their recovery undermined by the deterioration of wetlands, coral reefs and estuaries that many species rely on as nurseries, hideouts or food sources. There’s expert consensus that ocean policies need to be revamped to take into account how marine ecosystems work, and that a national ocean observing system is needed to collect the data scientists need to properly understand the system.

The establishment of such a national system was one of the key recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, a body appointed by President Bush that in 2004 concluded the first comprehensive review of national marine policy in 35 years. The official report urged Congress to commit $650 million annually to build and maintain the system, which it said would have “invaluable economic, societal, and environmental benefits.”

One of those benefits has been helping search and rescue operations, according to Art Allen of the Coast Guard’s Search and Rescue Headquarters in Washington. “We’re often trying to predict where survivors will have drifted over the time it takes for us to get to them, so we rely on predictive models of wind and currents,” he says. “These systems allow our controllers to get the best available data at a push of a button, increasing the precision of our analysis and getting us there faster.”

Fishermen use data on deepwater temperatures and the abundance of microscopic floating plants to figure out where fish might be, while many of Maine’s recreational boaters have grown accustomed to getting detailed information on offshore wind and sea conditions. Shyka says GoMoos’s website now gets 1.5 million page visits a year.

Rick Wahle of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay Harbor uses GoMoos data in his studies of how, when, and where infant lobsters settle on the ocean bottom, a key question in understanding and managing the state’s signature fishery.

“These buoys are unique in that they collect temperature and current information not just at the surface, but at various intervals of depth,” he says. “With bottom-dwelling creatures like lobsters it’s far more important to know what’s going on deep beneath the ocean.”

Other scientists have archived data in ongoing ecological and oceanographic studies aimed at better understanding the seas around New England, whose fisheries have been devastated by poor management. “Having long-term data sets is essential to any kind of model testing,” Wahle says. “GoMoos has really been a groundbreaking model for the whole country, and now the plug may be being pulled.”

Across the country, ocean operating systems are running out of money, and many are considering closing down part or all of their operations. “We do not have enough money to sustain the system in the long term,” says Madilyn Fletcher, director of the Carolinas Coastal Ocean Observing and Prediction System in Columbia, S.C., which has deferred maintenance of the majority of its buoys and may pull them if bridging funds cannot be secured. Her system needs $1 million a year to operate; the larger GoMoos requires about $4 million.

The problem: Congress never passed the legislation to fund the system. In recent years, the Senate twice passed bills sponsored by Maine’s two Republican senators that would have formally established and funded the national system. House versions never came to the floor for a vote, according to Congressional sources from both parties, because of the opposition of Richard Pombo (R-California), who as chair of the resources committee was often opposed to spending on environmental issues. Mr. Pombo, a rancher, once drafted a bill to sell of fifteen national parks, monuments, and nature reserves, and to sell “naming rights” for visitors’ centers and other features.

Until this year, the ocean observing systems relied on Congressional earmark funding to cover most of their operations, but these were stripped from this year’s budget. Mr. Pombo lost his seat in November, however, improving the prospects for long-term funding to be secured in the 2008 budget, according to Mark Sullivan, spokesman for Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine), a proponent of the system.

Even if appropriate legislation passes, it may be too late to avoid major disruptions. Most systems are scrambling to find additional funding, but some will probably be forced to dismantle at least part of their system. “Once you shut something down, you lose the people and expertise you’ve cultivated, and its considerably more expensive to get it going again,” notes Ms. Fletcher.

Colin Woodard is author of The Lobster Coast. His new book, The Republic of Pirates, has just been released: