NC ocean research lab on White House chopping block

rschoof@mcclatchydc.com jprice@newsobserver.comMarch 28, 2014 

— For more than a century, federal scientists have worked on Pivers Island near the historic town of Beaufort and the beaches of Emerald Isle studying the ocean and the fish, turtles and dolphins of its seagrass estuaries and rocky reefs.

Surrounded by three university labs, it’s one of a handful of oceanography hubs in the nation and the only government research center between New Jersey and Miami studying Atlantic fish populations.

So it came as a surprise when the federal government proposed doing away with the ocean science laboratory, which opened in 1899.

Tucked in President Barack Obama’s 218-page proposed budget for 2015 was a one-sentence mention of a plan to close an unnamed lab to save money. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration subsequently identified it as North Carolina’s historic research station.

“NOAA’s Beaufort lab has conducted valuable fisheries and coastal science for more than 100 years,” said NOAA spokeswoman Ciaran Clayton. “However, this aging facility requires infrastructure repairs and improvements exceeding agency budget resources now and for the foreseeable future.”

The coastal and ocean agency plans to shift instead to grants to non-agency scientists. Closing the lab would mean the loss of 108 jobs locally. NOAA intends to relocate the federal scientists. What will happen to the lab’s 31 government contractors is less clear.

Members of the North Carolina congressional delegation say they’ll fight to keep the lab open, but its prospects are unclear. It’s one of few cuts proposed in the Commerce Department’s $8.8 billion budget.

Rep. Walter Jones, a Republican who represents the coastal district that includes Beaufort, is building a coalition to oppose the closure, said his spokeswoman, Sarah Howard.

“I am seriously troubled by the fact … President Barack Obama has proposed closing a research lab in eastern North Carolina while continuing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure projects in Afghanistan,” Jones said in a statement.

The state’s Democratic senator, Kay Hagan, who is running for re-election, said she would fight the closure to protect jobs and research that help preserve coastal marine life. Rep. David Price, a Democrat from Chapel Hill and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said he’d be “sharply questioning” the decision when the committee reviews the budget Monday.

“The NOAA Beaufort Laboratory is a prime location and provides the only federal access to the most diverse marine ecosystem in the United States,” David B. Eggleston, a professor at N.C. State University and director of its Center for Marine Sciences and Technology, wrote the committee.

Eggleston’s letter cited examples of the lab’s contributions, including pioneering work on harmful algal blooms that made forecasting them possible and the first study of invasive lionfish in the U.S. South Atlantic.

Lab supports local economy

The lab sits just inside Beaufort Inlet, one of a handful of safe deepwater passages through the state’s barrier islands to the open sea. Duke University has a research station next door. NCSU and UNC-Chapel Hill labs are a short drive away.

Most people in the state think of coastal Carteret County, with its beaches, rental cottages and Beaufort’s historic district, as being all about tourism. But marine science has grown into a major local employer. NOAA and the three universities have a combined 163,000 square feet of research buildings and 40 labs. All told, marine science directly employs more than 500 people locally and injects $58 million into the economy, according to the county economic development council.

NOAA has said that the lab needed $55 million in work, but the lab’s supporters contend the costs are overstated.

An engineering report showed the facility is structurally sound, they said. NOAA has invested some $14 million in upgrades in recent years, including a new administrative building in 2006 and a new bridge to the island, a cost shared with Duke.

Charles H. “Pete” Peterson, a professor at UNC’s Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City, said the lab should remain at Beaufort because the North Carolina coast is one of three places – along with south Florida and the Mississippi Delta in Louisiana – where global climate change has the potential to cause radical changes from storms and sea level rise

Over the decades, he said, the lab has been known for work on Atlantic menhaden – a silvery herring – and seagrass.

“It’s more costly and less in your mind if you’re separated from the problems or assets you’re charged with to protect or research,” Peterson said.

Projects in works

In a letter to members of the congressional delegation, Myles Stempin, executive director of the Carteret Economic Development Council, wrote that the scientific reasons for locating the lab in Beaufort back in 1899 hadn’t changed, that it still offered the only federal access to the most diverse marine ecosystem in the nation.

“These ecological communities are representative of the entire East and Gulf coasts and include the northern range of southern species and the southern range of northern species,” Stempin wrote. “There is no other location where these opportunities can be accessed as easily or as cheaply.

If NOAA administrators spent more time on Pivers Island, that would be clear, he said in an interview.

“We believe they’re looking at the wrong numbers, and that instead of worrying about what they would have to invest, they should be thinking about what they stand to gain, and comes from its collaboration with the other research facilities here,” Stempin said in an interview. “We actually feel like what’s here should be enhanced, not closed down.”

Mike Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and governmental relations, said the university’s scientists were working with NOAA scientists on several important projects, including one involving salt marshes and another on how to analyze data to make better environmental decisions, a project that also includes the U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune.

“We hope that the federal government carefully considers all the impacts before it makes its decision,” Schoenfeld said.

The lab also is headquarters for staff of the North Carolina Coastal Reserve and Natural Estuarine Research Reserve. Teacher training workshops take place here. So do school field trips. Five minutes away by boat is the Rachel Carson Reserve, named for the author of “Silent Spring,” who worked in the lab.

Solving problems

Patricia Tester, who came to Beaufort as an Oregon State University graduate student in 1976, married a local man and ended up working for NOAA as a scientist for 33 years, said the lab has done practical work solving fisheries problems in North Carolina and beyond.

Tester said after the lab studied harmful algal blooms that caused the “red tide” of 1987, the Quinault Indians of La Push, Wash., asked for help to develop a new type of test they needed for their shellfish harvests. Tester retired but has returned to the lab as a contractor and continues her research. She said she’d never move, because she and her husband have made their lives in Beaufort.

Conservation and fishing groups also want Congress to keep the lab open and are calling lawmakers.

The North Carolina chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, a group devoted to protecting the coast for the general public, is asking Congress to keep it running, said the chapter’s chairman, Greg Hurt.

“Our organization and its members firmly believe that the future of fishing and the health of our states’ marine resources depend upon access to the best scientific data available,” Hurt said.

Closing the lab would worsen the problem of getting timely assessments of the health of fish stocks, he said, adding that the NOAA Beaufort lab “has an excellent reputation for providing high quality data for management.”

Jerry Schill, interim executive director of the N.C. Fisheries Association, a commercial fishing trade group, agreed.

“All we expect from these people is objectivity,” Schill said. “With the National Marine Fisheries Service Beaufort lab, we got it.”

Jackie Savitz, acting vice president for U.S. oceans at the conservation group Oceana, said NOAA “is the braintrust in helping us understand the impacts of what we do in our oceans.”

“We need more Beaufort labs, not fewer,” Savitz said.

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