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NOAA considers major upgrades in Woods Hole

Technician Nina Shepherd says her fish ear bone samples (stacked at right) lack a climate-controlled room.
Technician Nina Shepherd says her fish ear bone samples (stacked at right) lack a climate-controlled room.(Rose Lincoln for the Boston Globe)

WOODS HOLE — The old brick buildings, which lack central air conditioning, can be stifling in the summer and drafty in the winter. Most of the offices are cramped, sometimes forcing scientists to work in hallways and beside equipment as loud as circular saws. Their labs, built during the Kennedy administration, offer little space for serious research.

On the edge of Vineyard Sound, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, the federal government’s oldest marine research facility and a pivotal player in the region’s fishing industry, is seeking a major overhaul, through long-deferred renovations or a new center elsewhere in the region.

The center’s buildings do not have central air-conditioning.
The center’s buildings do not have central air-conditioning. (Rose Lincoln for the Boston Globe)

In the coming weeks, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will decide whether it should spend tens of millions of dollars to modernize the aging research center, a renowned institution that has conducted fisheries research in Woods Hole since 1871.

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“The real issue is that we’ve outgrown our capacity,” said Bill Karp, the center’s director, who notes that three times as many employees work at the center than it was designed to accommodate. “There are a lot of places where it’s just unpleasant to work, and that makes it hard to attract high-quality people.”

The center’s potential move has raised fears throughout Falmouth, the Cape Cod town that includes the village of Woods Hole, and has sparked a vigorous lobbying effort among other historic fishing ports, including New Bedford.

It has also angered some fishermen, who question how the agency can afford such an expense while regularly claiming to be strapped for cash.

“Where are their priorities?” asked David Goethel, who fishes for cod out of Hampton, N.H. “Is it in the day-to-day operations of the fishery, or is it in monument-building?”

Goethel sued NOAA last year for requiring fishermen to pay for on-board observers who monitor their catch. The agency had previously covered the monitoring costs, but said it could no longer afford to subsidize the $3 million program.

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Goethel acknowledged the need to update the Science Center, but he said it was frustrating that the agency would spend money on brick and mortar before aiding fishermen.

“Congress needs to put a big magnifying glass up to NOAA’s entire budget,” he said.

But some coastal communities see the prospect of a new federal research center opening there as a potential boon.

In a letter sent to NOAA this month, New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said his city could provide a remedy to the “obsolescence” of the center’s current home and bring its multiple buildings under one roof.

Moving the center to New Bedford, the nation’s top-grossing commercial fishing port, would also ease the “persistent distrust” between NOAA and the fishing industry, he added.

“To say the agency is viewed with deep suspicion in many of these communities is to put it mildly,” Mitchell wrote. “The problem stems in part from the lack of meaningful interaction between the fishing industry and the government scientists on whose research the regulations are chiefly based.”

Moving the center to New Bedford would be a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to further the mission of the center and restore the agency’s credibility in fishing communities,” Mitchell wrote.

But Falmouth officials are pleading with NOAA to keep the center in Woods Hole.

In a letter to NOAA in December, Doug Jones, chairman of the town’s board of selectmen, called Woods Hole the “perfect location” and said moving it would be “degrading the fundamental personal and institutional relationships that have been forged over decades of collaboration” between the center’s scientists and those at neighboring institutions, namely the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Marine Biological Laboratory.

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He also described the center, which has long studied changes in fishery stocks and advised officials on how to curb overfishing, as a “highly valued economic and cultural asset” that draws scientists from around the world to Cape Cod.

“We strongly recommend that the [center] remain in Woods Hole,” Jones wrote. “Its history and accomplishments are inextricably interwoven with the history of Woods Hole.”

Local officials have voiced concern that NOAA might decide to move the center to Newport, R.I., where the center’s 208-foot research ship, the Henry R. Bigelow, has been berthed since 2007.

Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed’s office declined to comment specifically on whether he is lobbying NOAA to move the center there.

“Senator Reed has worked hard to make a number of key upgrades to port and dockside facilities at Naval Station Newport for the Coast Guard, and NOAA has pointed out the benefits of a permanent NOAA presence there,” said Chip Unruh, a spokesman for Reed.

In Woods Hole, Karp acknowledged the challenges of upgrading the center at a time when so many fishermen are struggling.

“How we are seen is something that’s always at the back of my mind,” he said. “I understand that many members of the public think we need to spend more on doing science, rather than building things. But at some point these buildings will become uninhabitable, and the public is going to have to make an investment.”

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The center’s current location has significant benefits, particularly for collaborating with other marine scientists in the area, Karp noted. But there are many problems.

Flooding in the area, already a concern, is likely to get worse as seas rise. Traffic can be a challenge, especially in the summer when tourists flock to the nearby ferries. And the existing buildings require constant costly upkeep, aren’t properly wired for advanced computation, and aren’t energy-efficient.

Ultimately, the center’s 275 employees deserve better, he said.

“Right now, some feel like we take care of our machines better than our people,” Karp said.


David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.