NEWPORT Think of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations homeport as a high-end service station.
On the gleaming new docks surrounding its 1,300-foot-long pier, there are hookups for water, sewer and electric, all to service the four research and survey ships that now call Newport home.
When the newest member of the fleet, the 208-foot-long Bell M. Shimada, cruised into port on Labor Day, crews plugged into those utilities and offloaded trash and recycling into two giant bins stationed there, as they will be for the next several months while the ship undergoes necessary repairs and crew members either brush up on training or take vacations.
Local officials have welcomed NOAAs Marine Operations Center-Pacific with open arms and eager anticipation, dreaming of the day when the move might transform a relatively sleepy stretch of the Oregon Coast into a research mecca. But how that happens exactly, and what such a transformation might look like, requires a good understanding of what the homeport is and what it does.
Its mostly a pier, plus 40,000 square feet of office and warehouse space. The warehouse is used to store equipment and boat parts. The office building isnt itself a laboratory, or even a place where scientists come to work.
But thats not why its here, or why its useful to the scientific community, said Capt. Wade Blake, the homeports commander.
The Marine Operations Center supports the nine ships that are based in several different West Coast ports. That includes the humdrum tasks of replacing staff members who get moved from ship to ship; of scheduling repair work to keep the ships chugging along so that theyre not idled somewhere, burning through the tens of thousands of dollars per day it costs to operate them; of setting the ships budgets and determining their routes and what projects theyll tackle.
The science happens on board, and thats where things get more interesting and important. The Bell M. Shimada, for example, just returned from a 70-day hake survey, using its high-tech sonar equipment to measure how many of the fish are swimming in the waters from California and Canada.
These numbers, backed up by an occasional net full of real fish to make sure the fish finder is identifying the right species, help the government decide how much fish can be caught by commercial and recreational fleets.
Hake is also known as whiting, and its routinely turned into small portions of frozen fish or ground into surimi, the basis for imitation crab. Its a fishery that can earn anywhere from $30 million to $70 million a year for West Coast ports, so getting it counted accurately matters.
Other ships examine sensitive coral reefs in Hawaii; draw maps of the ocean floor and shoreline in Alaska where gaps and errors exist now that put mariners at risk; maintain weather buoys that detect tsunamis and hurricanes for use by the National Weather Service and occasionally get commissioned by some other government agency. One of the homeports vessels is working in the Gulf of Mexico now, surveying the damage associated with the Deepwater Horizon, the oil drilling rig that exploded in April 2010.
The ships are at sea most of the year, but there are two reasons they could provide a boost for science on the Oregon Coast.
For one thing, theyre big enough to accommodate researchers from universities, other government agencies or nonprofit institutions. One scientist from the University of Pennsylvania, for example, recently hitched a ride on a NOAA vessel working on tropical atmosphere ocean buoys, the weather trackers that monitor the onset and effects of La Nina and El Nino weather systems, Blake said.
Second, having the homeport in Oregon means scientists from all over the world may travel here.
Better still would be for researchers actually to put down roots in Newport, but thats not so likely an outcome, said Rick Brown, vessel coordinator for NOAAs Northwest Fisheries Science Center, which is based in Newport and which uses the ships often to conduct its research.
Having the fleet based here also is likely to mean that the ancillary companies that service those ships repairing equipment and instruments on board could decide theyll get enough business to move to Oregon.
And if that happens, it makes Newport a place with better infrastructure in place to handle other hard-to-repair equipment, drawing other research vessels to port.
The big benefit is bringing in the technicians, engineers and people supporting the NOAA fleet in the entire Pacific basin, Brown said. Newport becomes more and more a hub for the oceanographic research vessels that operate on the West Coast.