Are NOAA Administrators and President Obama giving up on a century of research?

By Ben Kornegay and Patrick Cooney

Who warns you about approaching dangerous weather and hurricanes, produces incredible maps and charts of the seas and skies, conducts research for sustainable use and protection of ocean and coastal resources, and is responsible for improving stewardship of the environment?

We will tell you who: Scientists with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  They are within the United States Department of Commerce and are focused on monitoring the conditions of the oceans and the atmosphere.

NOAA SEFSC

Since 1899 (115 years!), the scientists on Pivers Island, North Carolina with the Beaufort (pronounced bow-fert) NOAA laboratory have been watching out for you, the ocean, and the atmosphere.  This is the second longest operating NOAA laboratory in the nation, yet boasts some of the newest facilities and state-of-the-art laboratories in the NOAA system.

NOAA Beaufort Lab circa 1902

NOAA Beaufort Lab circa 1902

Specifically, NOAA scientists at the Beaufort Laboratory conduct research on protected species, marine mammals, habitat research, and Atlantic coastal fisheries issues, all related to the Mid-Atlantic Region’s multi-billion dollar coastal recreational and commercial fisheries.

Despite the incredible work done by the approximately 100 NOAA Beaufort Laboratory employees (see page 8), the recently proposed Fiscal Year 2015 budget by President Barack Obama surprisingly proposes closing the facility.  That is right, it proposes closing shop on more than a century of research.

On Wednesday, March 5, the President’s proposed budget states very vaguely: “The overall budget would finance the National Weather Service while closing an ocean science laboratory and consolidating another.”  This was surprising considering an announcement of a 6% increase in the total Department of Commerce budget, under which the funding for this lab resides.

Shortly following, Dr. Holly Bamford, the Assistant Administrator of the National Ocean Service (the agency that owns the laboratory facility in Beaufort), visited Beaufort and identified the Beaufort laboratory as the “ocean science laboratory” that will be closed if the proposed budget passes.

On Tuesday, March 11, Beaufort NOAA employees received an email from Southeast Fisheries Science Center Director, Dr. Bonnie Ponwith, stating that:

“The decision to close the Beaufort lab was driven by the fiscal realities of operating and maintaining the aging facility and the significant long-term costs needed to repair and improve the laboratory.  The facility requires infrastructure repairs and improvements exceeding current and future resources.  In 2012, the estimated cost to repair the facility was approximately $55 million and is likely higher now.  An investment of this magnitude is not realistic for NOAA in the current budget environment.”

An article in the Carteret County News-Times similarly quotes Ciaran Clayton, director of NOAA’s Communications and External Affairs: “This aging facility requires infrastructure repairs and improvements exceeding agency budget resources now and for the foreseeable future,” she said. “The president’s FY2015 budget request addresses this challenge by proposing closure of the lab. The proposal requires Congressional approval.”

The stance of extensive facility repair costs could easily be accepted by an outsider if they only heard that the location has been in operation for more than a century.  However, locals know differently, and have recently been questioning the price tag of $55 million dollars, especially given the recently constructed state-of-the-art facilities completed within the last decade that house labs, offices, and maintenance facilities.  Further, a new bridge connecting the island to the mainland was constructed in 2006.  Do the proposed repair costs properly reflect immediately needed repairs?  By closing shop, is the government wasting the strong investment that was put into these facilities over the past decade?

New bridge and facilities under construction.

New bridge and facilities under construction.

A 2008 report (Facility Modernization Plan) identified a much higher cost of $118.9 million from 2013 through 2015 to “recapitalize” the Southeast Fishery Science Center in Miami, Florida, whereas the Beaufort lab in North Carolina was identified as needing less than half that amount at $43.9 million for “reconstruction of facilities.”  Are other projects that need far more funding being allowed priority?  If fiscal reasons are cited for the Beaufort closure, perhaps more expensive projects could be delayed to cover these costs, rather than seeing closure as the only option.

Other NOAA labs, including the Sandy Hook lab in New Jersey, and the Pacific Grove lab in California, have also been threatened recently with potential closures in proposed budgets.  Both are still in operation today thanks to congressional discourse, legislative support, and active opposition.  Will the Beaufort lab see a similar fate with Congress stepping in at the final hour?  Could we have a collective influence by contacting our congressional representatives?

A potential silver lining was offered by Director Bonnie Ponwith to NOAA employees in her email.

“Should the facility be closed:

  • No permanent NOAA Fisheries federal employee will lose their job.
  • NOAA Fisheries employees will continue the research they are currently undertaking from different locations.  The different locations are not yet identified but we are evaluating a number of options.
  • Relocation costs will be covered by the government.”

Although this seems like a silver lining, approximately half of the NOAA employees in Beaufort are contract employees, and are not “permanent NOAA Fisheries federal employees.”  Therefore, their jobs, along with their contribution to the local community, are in jeopardy right along with the facilities.

Questions are currently being asked of where the 50 or so permanent employees would be relocated.  The Southeast Fisheries Science Center is headquartered in Miami, Florida, and the region is comprised of 7 laboratories.  People are wondering if the following locations, outside of the Beaufort Lab, are the most likely candidates.

Labs of the SEFSC

5 NOAA laboratories on the Gulf Coast: Galveston, TX, Lafayette, LA, Panama City, FL, Pascagoula, MS, and Stennis, MS

2 NOAA laboratories on the Atlantic Coast: Miami, FL and Beaufort, NC

With the potential closure of the NOAA Beaufort lab, 20,693 miles of tidal shoreline would be without a NOAA research laboratory between Miami, Florida and Sandy Hook, NJ.  This is a surprising development, especially considering the importance of this region to the nation’s fisheries, and the minimal presence of NOAA labs on the East Coast.

As commercially and recreationally important fish stocks such as Red Snapper begin to recover from overfishing, programs potentially impacted include the Southeast Fishery-Independent Survey (SEFIS) research group based in Beaufort.  Additionally, the lab supports research on protected migratory species such as the Bottlenose Dolphin and Loggerhead Turtle, which frequent the North Carolina coast.  The location of the Beaufort Lab in central coastal North Carolina ensures timely responses to strandings and other events requiring immediate attention.

NOAA tracking Sea Turtle movements and migrations.

NOAA tracking Sea Turtle movements and migrations.

Do NOAA and the President not see this region similarly?

A report put out by NOAA in 1997 states: “We did not recommend closing the Beaufort lab because the research being conducted there is high priority.  We did not recommend moving the lab because its location is highly advantageous to its research.  Furthermore, a fairly large number of personnel are stationed at the facility, which would make moving costs prohibitive, and there are no other NMFS facilities that can accommodate the programs and personnel.”

Is research conducted in Beaufort no longer high priority?  Is the location no longer highly advantageous to its research?  Is moving a large number of employees no longer cost prohibitive?  Are there new facilities that now accommodate the programs and personnel?

Do NOAA and the President see differently in 2014 than their predecessors in 1997?

To further demonstrate the importance of this location as critical to fisheries research, a large contingency of marine science and education research institutes in the area joined in 2004 to create the North Carolina Marine Science and Education Partnership (NC MSEP).  NOAA, Duke University Marine Lab, the University of North Carolina Institute of Marine Sciences, North Carolina State University Center for Marine Science and Technology (CMAST), and North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries are all clustered, making the region an epicenter of current and future fisheries research.  Marine Science in Carteret County accounts for over $58 million in revenue, and once combined with education, brings more than $100 million into the County!  The NOAA lab is the largest in this group (and in the Science, Technology, Research, and Development field in Carteret County), and is in the top 20 for number of employees in the County.  What will happen to the NC MSEP partnership and the County without this major player?

Pivers Island is home to many marine science facitilities, including the NOAA Beaufort Lab in the foreground.

Pivers Island is home to many marine science facitilities, including the NOAA Beaufort Lab in the foreground.

Do NOAA and the President not understand the importance of this partnership and revenue in the region?

Science is strengthened by collaboration and communication.  The loss of the NOAA Beaufort Lab would severely hamper the efficiency of collaboration among state, federal, and university scientists (see page 51).  As we progress further into the digital age of communication, scientists have found that discussing stock assessment models is far better in person (especially over a plate of Clawson’s famous crab cakes in downtown Beaufort), than try to find time in the day for a Skype session or a conference call.

The threat of closing the Beaufort Lab is much more than crab cakes and coastal pubs.  As noted, the lab serves as the Mid-Atlantic research station between NOAA’s Sandy Hook, NJ lab and the Miami, FL lab.  Many of the marine species studied are highly migratory and utilize habitats from New Jersey to Florida. With the absence of this middle research station, the efficiency of data collection from the coastal Carolinas will likely be degraded, creating a void in research in the Southeastern US with unpredictable consequences.

As a demonstration of the importance and proficiency of the science conducted at Beaufort’s NOAA lab, a list of recent publications by Beaufort scientists in peer-reviewed journals shows a dedication to conducting incredible research.

Does the value that the lab contributes to the public, the broad scientific community, and to the management and conservation of natural resources not exceed the cost to upgrade the facility?

What are your thoughts?  If the currently proposed budget passes, is NOAA justified in shuttering the windows on 100+ years of research?

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5 responses to “Are NOAA Administrators and President Obama giving up on a century of research?

  1. Thank you for mentioning the contract employees who will not be relocated and will likely lose their jobs. These were also the people, many of whom fulfil the roles of federal employees, who were not reimbursed for furlough days during the government shutdown last year. The President’s Budget is not likely at all to pass in its current form, so hopefully this will be one of the items that does not make it through.

    • Let’s hope you are correct and that this item does not make it through to the actual budget. Either way, it is not comforting to be so needed, yet be an item worthy of the chopping block.

  2. Actually, they’re not with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. It’s the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

  3. Thank you for the shout out about our (Clawson’s) crab cakes! Downtown businesses are very opposed to closure of the NOAA lab here in Beaufort. It’s a very important part of our community, not to mention the important work completed at the lab. I’m happy to support any and all efforts to keep NOAA open.

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