Loss of Fisheries Vessel Could Impact NOAA's Future in Woods Hole

Could the loss of one of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s primary research vessels lead to the institution leaving Woods Hole entirely?

It is a question the town hopes is never answered. The federal fisheries center has played an important role in Falmouth’s scientific and economic industry since Spencer Fullerton Baird arrived in Woods Hole in June 1871 as part of his new job as the government’s first-ever commissioner of fisheries.

Roughly 12 years later the federal agency brought its first research vessel to Woods Hole and until last year, when the Delaware II was decommissioned, it has had one berthed in the village. Now there are fears that not having a research vessel in Woods Hole could lead to NOAA parting ways with the town.

Those fears were expressed by selectmen at their meeting Monday night when Jay Zavala, president of the Falmouth Chamber of Commerce, asked the board to send letters to their state and congressional delegation to ensure NOAA remains in Woods Hole.

Standing in the way of bringing a NOAA research vessel back to Woods Hole is the construction of a new, modern pier as well as dredging adjacent to the dock, estimated to cost anywhere between $15 and $20 million.

The new pier could bring to Woods Hole the NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow, a 208-foot, $60 million research vessel that was commissioned in 2007 and replaced the NOAA Ship Albatross IV, which called Woods Hole home until 2008 when it was taken out of service. The Henry Bigelow is named after Henry Bryant Bigelow, one of the founders of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and its first director.

Although the ship has visited Woods Hole, it is currently berthed at the Newport Naval Base in Rhode Island despite significant steps that have been taken to bring it here. In the fall of 2008 the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the Woods Hole entrance channel, a $2.2 million project that deepened it from 18 to 25 feet, allowing enough room for the 20-foot draft of the Bigelow to safely pass through.

One of the implications of not having any NOAA research vessels in Woods Hole is the loss of well-paying jobs. With both the Albatross and Delaware being taken out of service, Mr. Zavala said, it has meant that roughly 40 scientific and engineering positions have been taken from Falmouth.

Reaching Out to Congressional Delegation

In September Mr. Zavala sent a letter to US Senator Elizabeth A. Warren warning of the potential loss of the Bigelow and what it could mean to Woods Hole.

Along with the chamber’s letter calling for legislative action, selectmen agreed last night to exert their pressure on Sen. Warren, Senator Edward J. Markey, US Representative William R.  Keating, Governor Deval L. Patrick as well as the state delegation.

Town manager Julian M. Suso read a letter into the record, in which he noted that a new pier has already been fully permitted and those permits are scheduled to expire next summer.

The letter also notes the inefficiency of having the Bigelow stationed in Rhode Island while NOAA’s offices remain in Woods Hole, creating temporary berthing costs to the agency while having an impact on its research missions. “We are advised that NOAA has examined the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of homeporting the Bigelow at sites other than the historic and traditional long-time home port in Woods Hole; each of these studies has concluded that the replacement research vessel(s) should be docked and homeported at the Woods Hole location.”

The board’s correspondence urges Sen. Warren and others to reach out to US Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Kathryn Sullivan, the acting NOAA administrator, urging them to move forward with the remaining steps to allow the Bigelow to be permanently stationed in Woods Hole.

This week selectman Kevin E. Murphy stressed the importance of this effort. Losing the Bigelow, he said, would mean there would be no NOAA research vessels here leading to the possibility that the agency could move to the ship’s permanent home.

In a phone interview on Tuesday morning Mr. Zavala noted there were additional implications to the building of a new pier for the Bigelow as it could accommodate another ship, potentially bringing the FSV (Fisheries Survey Vessel) Pisces here. In terms of operations and salaries, he estimated it would bring in as much as $5 million to the local economy. Beyond that, he said, “then you would have the opportunity for national and international collaborations between the Northeast Fisheries Center and other entities for research and education. That is the bigger picture.”

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