Published online 13 October 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.536

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Dearth of research vessels hampers oil-spill science

Efforts to understand the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster are being slowed by a shortage of ships.

PelicanResearch vessesls, such as the Pelican, are few and far between in the Gulf of Mexico.NIUST/NOAA

The Ronald H. Brown, the flagship research vessel of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), sets sail tomorrow on its first cruise in the Gulf of Mexico since the oil spill began. The ruptured well was finally capped in July after spewing roughly three-quarters of a million litres of oil into the Gulf, and scientists aboard vessels such as the Ron Brown are now assessing the ecological impact of the accident. But many marine scientists say that the effort is being delayed and hampered by a lack of research vessels — highlighting the consequences of years of cuts (see 'US ocean-research projects in dire economic straits').

Over the past decade, reduced funding for ocean research has led to a drop in demand for vessels, says Vernon Asper, a marine scientist at the University of Southern Mississippi. These then operated on fewer days per year, increasing per-day expenses and causing demand to fall further. The research fleet has gone into "a death spiral", says Asper, who is chair of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) Council, based in Narragansett, Rhode Island, which represents 61 academic and research institutions, and schedules cruises for 22 ships.

Because of reduced operating funds and the increasing costs of running ageing vessels, Texas A&M University at College Station retired the 55-metre research vessel Gyre in 2005, and the University of Texas at Austin mothballed its 32-metre Longhorn in 2007. After losing more than $1 million a year for several years operating the Seward Johnson, Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce recently sold the 62-metre ship and two manned submersibles.

A number of vessels in the 20- to 30-metre range have seen action in the Gulf this summer — including the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium's Pelican — as well as a handful of vessels under 20 metres. "You can sneak into the open Gulf in some of these boats in calm weather," says Steve Lanoux, assistant director for operations at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas. "But that size of vessel can get into trouble pretty quickly, and can't handle big gear or work very deep."

Minimum requirements

Ocean scientists need, at minimum, some lab space, a winch and a conductivity-temperature-depth package, which carries an array of oceanographic instruments and water-sample collection bottles. The Cape Hatteras, which spent 57 days in the Gulf between June and September, fits the bill, but is based in Beaufort, North Carolina, a long and expensive journey from the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, its time is shared between the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and researchers at a number of institutions on the east coast, including Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

“It would have been fascinating to document the spill as it happened, but almost no one could get out there.”

Tracy Villareal
University of Texas at Austin

The oil spill has underscored the need for more regional-class vessels, says David Conover, director of the NSF's division of ocean sciences. But Congress has not approved funding in the NSF budget for additional vessels. Ship construction at the NSF comes under the budget for major research equipment and facilities construction, where ocean science must compete with disciplines such as astronomy and atomic physics. NOAA plans to commission a new Gulf-based vessel, but funding has not yet been approved.

Steve Murawski, chief science adviser for NOAA fisheries, admits that the lack of available vessels has slowed Gulf spill research. "We have no slack capacity to deal with something like [the spill]," he says, "so it has to come out of the hide of something else."

This summer, 'something else' included more than $3 million in planned research. Among the cancelled projects were a survey of marine mammal and turtle populations reaching from the Gulf to New England, a deep-water survey in the northern Gulf and a survey of the Gulf's Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in Galveston, Texas. "With the increased pace of research, we had to pick and choose missions," says Murawski.

The clock is ticking

Conover says that the NSF ensured that its RAPID grant recipients received the ship time they required, but acknowledges that scientists funded by non-NSF sources may not have been so fortunate. He adds that unless funds are spent to extend the life of existing vessels or to construct new ones, about half of the current research fleet will be out of service by the year 2020. "NSF and the ocean-science community as a whole recognize the need for new vessels, and planning is underway," Conover says. Funds must be allocated immediately to avert that crisis in 2020, he adds, because replacing vessels takes seven to eight years.

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"The fleet is declining and it's alarming that we don't have replacements in the works because of the lead time required," agrees Asper. "Younger investigators sometimes feel there is no point even applying for ship time, because they think they aren't going to get it."

Gulf scientists hope that research funds committed by BP after the Deepwater Horizon disaster will catalyse government funding for new vessels. In the meantime, officials will probably continue to reposition existing vessels to meet demand — and scientists will continue to scramble to manage the inevitable delays that this causes.

"When something like the spill happens and you have to wait for a ship to become available, it's a real shame," says Tracy Villareal, a marine scientist at the University of Texas at Austin who recently finished a 27-day Gulf cruise on the Cape Hatteras. "It would have been fascinating to document the spill as it happened, but almost no one could get out there." 

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