Published online 22 August 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.488


End of an era for research subs

Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute lays off crew, cutting marine science capacity.

subThe Johnson Sea Link (JSL) submersibles no longer have a dedicated crew at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute to operate them.Sara D. Davis / AP Photo

The submersibles of Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) have chalked up almost 9,000 dives, made countless undersea discoveries, and starred in a host of television documentaries.

But last month, the institute, in Fort Pierce, Florida, laid off the seven people who crewed and supported the two submersibles, marking an unceremonious end to a research programme that began in 1971. It leaves the east coast of the United States with no manned research subs in operation.

HBOI's four-man Johnson Sea Link (JSL) submersibles were effectively mothballed last year when the institute sold the research vessel Seward Johnson, a ship specially outfitted to deploy the subs. Without the means to launch the subs, the crew simply became surplus to requirements, and were let go due to lack of funding, according to HBOI officials.

"The JSL crews were as expert and as professional as anybody in the world," says Chuck Fisher, a marine biologist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, who made close to 100 dives in the subs. "It's definitely a loss to the world's deep-sea research community, and to future generations of scientists."

"Most of what we know about the animals between 400 metres and 1,000 metres in the Gulf of Mexico was learned with the JSLs through two decades of work by myself and others," Fisher adds. The only other research submersible on the East Coast, Alvin, operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, is undergoing an upgrade and is unavailable until 2012.

"I want to make it clear that we are still working in ocean exploration," says biologist Megan Davis, associate executive director of research at HBOI. The institute has a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) for underwater exploration, and Davis says she is "working closely with scientists to make sure the research they need to carry out is supported by other tools".

But scientists say that ROVs are no substitute for manned submersibles. "ROVs have a limited field of view, and if something is off to the side and you don't know it's there, you'll miss it completely," says biologist Tammy Frank of Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center, who has used the JSLs.

"There is no sensor available that can substitute for the fully dark-adapted human eye," adds biologist Edith Widder, now president and chief executive of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association in Fort Pierce, who used the JSLs while she was a scientist at HBOI. "No detector that I can send down in an ROV will give me the range of information provided by my own eyes." ROVs also make noise, and can't remain motionless: "I know I see far fewer animals working with an ROV than with an untethered sub," she says.

Under pressure

The HBOI's decision stems from a series of financial pressures. "Since 2000, with the exception of 2005 and 2009, Harbor Branch marine operations sustained operating losses," says Davis. "In 2004, Harbor Branch also lost significant foundation support, which made it increasingly difficult to continue to afford the ship and sub."

Davis adds that the JSLs received no funding through the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), an organization of 61 academic institutions that coordinates the schedules of oceanographic ships and research facilities. UNOLS funding for the Seward Johnson itself had also declined in recent years.

In 2010, the Seward Johnson was sold for almost US$6 million to the Cepemar Group, headquartered in Vitória, Brazil, which is made up of five companies involved with oil and gas exploration, port and airport operations, and environmental services. The company is using the ship in a five-year environmental monitoring programme, according to Cepemar Environmental Services spokesperson Craig Ash.

The JSL I, which has been out of action for several years, remains at HBOI; but the JSL II traveled to Brazil with the Seward Johnson and was used on an expedition there in January. Davis says that plans are in place to bring it back to HBOI, although no date has been set.


Peter Tatro, who was associate executive director at HBOI and served on the committee that evaluated bids for the sale of the Seward Johnson, resigned from HBOI in December 2010 to work for Cepemar – the only company to submit a bid for the Seward Johnson. Tatro insists that this presents no conflict of interest.

As part of the sale of the Seward Johnson, Davis says, Cepemar agreed to allow HBOI use of the ship for 30 days each year for the next five years. "We continue to work cooperatively together to develop meaningful marine research and education opportunities in, and with, Brazil," says Tatro. 

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