NOAA nixes replacing research vessel

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2008

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will not replace its oldest research ship, the John Cobb, due to retire after 57 years of scientific service to Alaska fisheries, a NOAA spokesman said.

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Additionally, the federal agency said it was not interested in making Juneau a home port for its ships, as some city leaders hoped.

The comment follows a December letter sent from Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho to U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, asking for help replacing the Cobb, which provides a platform for scientific research affecting issues from fishing quotas to the location of the proposed Juneau access road. The Cobb is based in Seattle and summers in Juneau.

Stevens is the vice chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and NOAA falls under his purview.

"Replacing the Cobb is not in the fleet modernization plan," said Jeannie Kouhestani, spokesperson for NOAA Office of Marine and Aviation Operations.

Kouhestani said the Cobb's scientific mission will continue regardless of what ship is used.

Botelho said he understands that NOAA has no plans to base any ship in Juneau, but it was the first time he heard NOAA's stance on the Cobb.

Regardless of NOAA's view, the city believes that the research capacity and infrastructure should be built up in Alaska. Now most research on Alaska is done from Washington state and Oregon, he said.

"We will continue to advocate for home porting as well," Botelho said. "It makes sense for operations to be based in Alaska."

Greg Fisk, city Docks and Harbors board member, said the main reason NOAA will not consider Juneau is its location.

"The only criteria we can't meet is that we're not Washington or Oregon," he said.

An expiring contract with NOAA's Seattle dock triggered the search for a new port, Kouhestani said.

Recent fires destroyed much of the dock space NOAA used in Seattle and ports from Oregon to Bellingham, Wash., are maneuvering to get NOAA's operation center.

Fisk said Assembly member Bob Doll, a former Navy captain and past general manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System, will meet with Stevens' office next week. Fisk hopes for political intervention to bring Alaska research into the state permanently.

"It's time to shift the paradigm," he said. "The (NOAA ship) Miller Freeman works almost exclusively in Alaska."

Stevens' staff will meet in coming weeks with NOAA officials and Juneau representatives to "discuss the possibility of permanently moving more NOAA resources to Southeast Alaska," said Aaron Saunders, Stevens' communications director.

Saunders said the senator's past efforts expanded NOAA's presence in the state with three other ships and the construction of the Lena Point marine research center.

"The senator's primary concern is that Alaska's fisheries have the scientific support to remain healthy and sustainable," Saunders said.

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



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