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City seeks funds to replace NOAA ship

Operation center move poses economic possibilities for Juneau, officials say

Posted: Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The city asked U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens last week to seek funding to replace an aging research vessel and continue financing the ship's Southeast Alaska research operations until a replacement is brought online.

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Mayor Bruce Botelho said the vessel's work is imperative to the region.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel, the John Cobb, has been conducting research in Alaska waters since before statehood and is the oldest research ship in NOAA's fleet. Botelho said the ship, due for retirement in September, collects data on salmon, eelgrass, black cod, rockfish and a host of other important scientific areas.

Last September, the crew aboard the John Cobb began studying Lynn Canal herring stocks in an effort to determine if the subspecies, whose stocks have decreased by 85 percent since the 1970s, is endangered and if the small oily fish should join one of its predators, the humpback whale, on the federal endangered species list.

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"The information collected by the Cobb is, and will continue to be, critical in this determination," Botelho said.

Listing of the herring has potential effects on the Kensington Mine and the Juneau access road, he said.

Stevens' office was closed for the New Year holiday Monday and no one was available to comment.

The letter, sent by the city after Christmas, notes Juneau's efforts to entice NOAA's Operation Center Pacific in Seattle as it considers permanently relocating several ships following a 2006 fire that destroyed some of the Lake Union facility. City lobbyist John Root also is working on the project in Washington, D.C.

"It just makes sense," city manager Rod Swope said. "It's not unprecedented."

Two NOAA ships and their crews are now permanently stationed in Alaska, one in Kodiak and the other in Ketchikan. Adding to the Cobb's recent summer operations out of Juneau, the Rainier and the Miller Freeman work in Alaska when not docked in Seattle.

Next week Swope and others from the city, Assembly members and those with local business interests expect to meet and decide what's next in their bid to attract NOAA and keep the Cobb's mission alive.

The Seattle Times reported in August that 60 jobs would relocate with NOAA if the operation center moved.

Spokespeople in NOAA's Juneau, Seattle and Washington, D.C., offices were unavailable for comment Monday.

A decision on where to move the operation center is expected sometime this month, Swope said.

Though stationing the John Cobb in Juneau year-round would bring some economic boost, it's the research that is more valuable to the city since there are only five crew members and two officers.

"We're interested in the scientific data and the decisions being made," Swope said. "The information the Cobb collects is crucial for Southeast fisheries."

Meeting the needs of the John Cobb alone would require little work, said John Stone, director of the Port of Juneau. NOAA already shares a 150-foot dock downtown with the Coast Guard, and that facility would most likely suffice, he said.

If NOAA stationed Rainier or Cobb in Juneau permanently, it might ask for some upgrades such as better electrical connections with the shore, Stone said.

The Seattle Times reported that 80 sites were under consideration in Washington and Oregon, but none in Alaska. But Swoop thinks NOAA still considers Juneau a possibility.

"This is where they work," Swope said.

• Contact Greg Skinner at 523-2258 or greg.skinner@juneauampire.com



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