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Sunk? The White House is proposing to close a marine research laboratory located on Pivers Island near Beaufort, North Carolina.

Sunk? The White House is proposing to close a marine research laboratory located on Pivers Island near Beaufort, North Carolina.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Opponents Assail White House Plan to Close NOAA Lab in North Carolina

A proposal by the Obama administration to close a historic marine research laboratory near Beaufort, North Carolina, is drawing pushback from the scientific community and local members of Congress. Although the administration frames it as a tough choice in a time of fiscal restraint, critics argue that the proposed closure of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lab would endanger crucial marine research.

Founded more than 100 years ago, the NOAA laboratory on Pivers Island near Beaufort conducts research into a variety of marine science subjects, including fish stocks, ecosystem function, and the health of aquatic creatures. Its work has helped scientists improve how they forecast harmful algal blooms, and it set in place the first study of invasive lionfish in the South Atlantic, those familiar with the lab say. And it is the only NOAA lab between Miami, Florida, and Sandy Hook, New Jersey.

The Obama administration quietly proposed closing the lab in the president’s fiscal year 2015 budget request released last month, citing the tough fiscal environment. The lab, which employs 108 workers and contractors, has a roughly $1.6 million operating and maintenance budget (which does not include salaries).

The closure is far from set in stone. Congress would have to approve the request as part of the spending plan for the 2015 fiscal year, which begins 1 October. But that work isn’t expected to be finished until late this year, after the November elections.

In the meantime, some scientists and lawmakers are baffled by the proposal, which they say doesn’t have a clear rationale. And they are making the case for why the lab deserves to stay open.

“This lab is a vital part of the local, national, and international marine science community and provides important research and information for sustaining fisheries and coastal ecosystems of the Mid- and South-Atlantic, and to U.S territories in the Caribbean Sea to the people of this nation,” said David Eggleston, a professor and the director of North Carolina State University’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology, in a 28 March letter to lawmakers.

Even if the lab is closed, NOAA won’t be letting go of the lab’s 62 permanent staff members, according to a presentation on the proposed budget. “Fisheries employees will continue the research they are currently undertaking at a different location,” the presentation says. It’s uncertain what will happen to the others. But proponents of keeping the lab open say they’re skeptical that the relocated NOAA researchers would be able to continue doing the same work they have long been doing at the Beaufort lab.

"It covers a large swath ecologically that other labs can’t cover easily without traveling," says Amy Freitag, a recent marine science and conservation Ph.D. graduate of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who collaborated with a NOAA scientist at the Beaufort lab. "It would be difficult to continue research in the area from other NOAA facilities." As an example, she mentions that waters from two regions of the Atlantic converge in an area of the ocean near the lab. “Ecologically speaking, it’s probably the most fascinating part of the East Coast Atlantic to look at,” she says. “You can study fisheries both from that northern region and from the southern region and see how they interact.” Freitag also worries that numerous partnerships with nearby universities would suffer if the researchers move far away.

NOAA declined to make Beaufort lab scientists available for interviews. Ciaran Clayton, a NOAA spokeswoman, said in a statement that the laboratory has conducted valuable science over the course of its 100-plus-year history. "However, this aging facility requires infrastructure repairs and improvements exceeding agency budget resources now and for the foreseeable future,” Clayton said.

Lab proponents don’t buy that argument. They note that in recent years NOAA has invested millions of dollars to upgrade the facility, including by building a new bridge to the island that houses the lab. To shut the lab after making those upgrades would be all the more baffling, Freitag says.

The lab closure won’t see the light of day in Congress if a bipartisan coalition of federal lawmakers has their way.

"I am seriously troubled by the fact that in his most recent budget proposal, 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," said Representative Walter Jones (R-NC) in a statement. Jones and Representative Mike McIntyre (D-NC), in a 31 March letter, requested House appropriators’ “assistance in rejecting the unjustified and misguided proposal.”

Representative David Price (D-NC) said in a statement that he questions the wisdom of shutting down "a hub for collaborative research endeavors among NOAA's federal researchers and those located in neighboring labs."

"The prospect of losing that synergy is alarming, and I am going to be sharply questioning this decision" as appropriators in the House of Representatives make decisions on what the government can spend where next fiscal year, Price said.