The Gulf of Mexico’s tiny, overworked fleet of research vessels is finally getting a flagship.
The National Science Foundation announced last week that it would pay for a $106 million boat to help scientists explore some of the critical issues affecting the Gulf, including climate change, hurricanes, fisheries’ health and oil pollution. At 199 feet long, it would be the largest vessel devoted to scientific research in the Gulf region.
“It’s really exciting that the Gulf of Mexico is getting a (ship) of this class,” said Nancy Rabalais, an LSU marine ecologist who studies the low-oxygen “dead zone” in the Gulf. “It’s well overdue.”
Scientists say there aren’t enough research vessels to meet the demand. The U.S. research fleet was reduced from 27 vessels to 20 between 2005 and 2014, and it is expected to shrink further as ships are retired.
The new ship will be operated by the Cocodrie-based Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. The consortium currently has only three vessels longer than 50 feet, and yet its fleet is considered the largest in the Gulf devoted to research.
Consortium Director Craig McClain said the new ship will have far greater capabilities than the group’s current flagship, the 116-foot-long, 34-year-old Pelican.
“We’ll be able to stay out at sea longer, carry more people and just do a whole lot more when we’re out there,” he said.
The not-yet-named ship will have room for 29 crew members and scientists, a range of 5,000 nautical miles and the ability to travel in deep water for up to 21 days.
The Pelican can carry a remote-operated vehicle, a high-tech tool for undersea exploration, but it has room for little else. The new ship will have capacity for a large ROV plus equipment for other types of research, McClain said.
The ship, slated for completion in 2023, will be built by Gulf Island Fabrication in Houma, along with two other ships also funded by the National Science Foundation. The nearly identical ships will go to Oregon State University and the University of Rhode Island. Work began on the Oregon State ship last year.
Funding for the three ships was proposed by President Barack Obama’s administration and increased to $318 million by the Senate in 2016.
The Louisiana Board of Regents, which oversees public higher education in the state, chipped in $500,000 for the Louisiana Universities ship.
Federal support for ocean research has tended to go to the East and West coasts, while the Gulf is often an afterthought, Rabalais said. “We’ve been somewhat ignored or not funded as well as other areas,” she said. “And more ships have long been needed on the Gulf of Mexico.”
The scarcity of research vessels was especially evident during the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in 2010.
“We were scrambling to get boats out there,” said Christopher D’Elia, dean of LSU’s College of the Coast and Environment. “We really didn’t know what was happening with the oil at the time. It was coming out at a fast rate, but the effects of the oil were unknown for the first couple weeks.”
The state of the Deepwater Horizon well site, which sits 41 miles off the Louisiana coast, remains largely unknown.
Scientists say there’s no substitute for conducting research at sea, despite advances in satellite technology, ROVs and remote sensors that allow data collection without ships.
“You still need real people collecting real data in real time,” said Rabalais, who must gather water samples at sea to determine the ever-changing shape and size of the Gulf’s dead zone.
Nearly all deep-water or ocean floor research requires instruments, ROVs and other vehicles deployed from ships. Most marine biological research is done from boats, and nearly all geological research requires vessels with dredges and other tools that can take samples from the seafloor.
There are plenty of discoveries to be made on deep-sea voyages. Only about 20% of the Earth’s seafloor has been mapped, leaving the rest “shrouded in mystery,” McClain said.
There’s also something to be said for getting students and young scientists out of the lab for a dose of saltwater and sea breeze.
“It connects you to the place, to what you’re studying,” D’Elia said. “Seeing flying fish landing on deck, the dolphins and whales jumping around the boat, the albatross flying by — it’s really exciting.”
When D’Elia was a graduate student, he wasn’t sure he wanted to devote his career to studying the Gulf. He might have gone home to New England to focus on the North Atlantic. But then he found himself aboard a research vessel off the Louisiana coast.
“That trip committed me absolutely,” he said. “It sealed the deal.”