The federal agency that oversees hurricane research and manages fisheries along the nation’s southeast coast faces an overhaul and potential downsizing that could cripple partnerships that have made Miami a leader in the world of marine and atmospheric science.
While unrelated, the timing of the two moves — possibly relocating the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries headquarters from Virginia Key to St. Petersburg and pending budget cuts to the climate science program there — amount to a double whammy for the research hub and a brain drain for the region.
“It’s a big hit,” said Ben Kirtman, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and director of NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies or CIMAS. Kirtman fears a “tyranny of distance” would all but end collaborations that began when the Fisheries headquarters opened across the street from the university in 1965.
“In science, it’s very difficult to do interdisciplinary work. It’s a real challenge because you speak difference languages. And that’s where a lot of the big breakthroughs come from,” he said. “When you’re separated by floors in the same building, it’s hard to collaborate, let alone if you’re across the state.”
Built at a time when ocean science was rapidly expanding, the Fisheries headquarters on the scrubby island represented years of collaboration between the agency and Rosenstiel. After the university started a marine lab in 1943, federal fisheries officials opened offices first on the Coral Gables campus, then followed the school labs to Virginia Key. In 1972, a partnership was struck for the cooperative institute, which along with 13 other such agreements around the country provide the basic research for NOAA missions. In 2015, NOAA awarded $125 million to CIMAS, which includes Florida International University and other university programs in South Florida, to continue its efforts that include weather research for the Oceanic and Atmospheric Research program.
The agency and university are now so intertwined, with professors and students tracking back and forth across the Rickenbacker Causeway, that it’s sometimes hard to tell who works where.
The arrangement has led to frequent and often critical advances to better understanding important fisheries such as bluefin tuna, pink shrimp and dolphin, often giving the government unfettered access to research to carry out work. Ongoing monitoring efforts are also helping shed light on how currents operate, where fish eggs hatch and even how fish respond to Everglades Restoration. A breakthrough earlier this year in measuring hurricane intensity was the work of a partnership. In April, NOAA approved a joint two-year project to rebuild South Florida’s ailing reef tract with more resilient coral. And when methods were devised earlier this year to better track massive rafts of floating plastic that helped form the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the work came from another collaboration.
“NOAA defines the mission,” then UM provides the troops who can be more nimbly deployed than employees constrained by federal bureaucracy, Kirtman said.
But in a 2015 study of its seven locations across the Southeast that make up the Southeast Fisheries Science Center, NOAA determined that the aging building was nearing its expiration date.
With the exception of a necropsy suite, the three-story building had not been substantially improved, the report said. The site, wedged between Bear Cut and Virginia Beach Drive next to UM’s sea slug breeding lab and shade house, offered little room for expansion and outdated quarters for 163 employees. The site also faces an increased threat from sea rise.
The study ultimately concluded that relocating the building across the street, despite the eroding coast, would prevent any disruption to research or partnerships. However, NOAA officials pitched a site in St. Petersburg, where other agency offices are located, as a backup.
St. Pete, which is in the midst of expanding a waterfront Innovation District, seized the opportunity to roll out the welcome mat.
City officials not only offered to provide land for a facility, but to construct a building that could be leased back to NOAA. City Development Administrator Alan DeLisle said the city had struck a similar deal with SRI International, a nonprofit research institute that received $30 million from the state, city and Pinellas County to open a facility in the district in 2007. Under the city proposal, the Fisheries headquarters would be located next door, he said.
“We have experience doing this. We’ve got a very strong marine science cluster. They’re all behind this. So we’d have the whole community working closely,” he said. “We don’t want it to leave the state for sure. And there has been some discussion about that.”
The push by St. Petersburg appeared to get some help from Florida Sen. Bill Nelson in May when he spearheaded a measure in the Senate Commerce Committee that clears the way for a new port facility for a NOAA research vessel. Nelson spokesman Ryan Brown said the provision was completely unrelated to relocating the Fisheries headquarters. He did not respond to requests for comment on moving the Fisheries headquarters from Virginia Key to St. Petersburg.
Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, whose district covers the headquarters, also failed to respond to repeated requests for comment on a possible move.
St. Pete’s aggressive pitch caught some staff off-guard, Kirtman said, because most of the negotiations had occurred between NOAA officials in Washington without local input. Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district covers Virginia Key, said he first heard about the possible move last week.
“It’s over 100 jobs,” he said. “There’s a benefit to having them. They’re a very good neighbor.”
The move also coincides with growing anxiety about proposed cuts under a Trump budget to the Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) program that relies heavily on CIMAS for research efforts. While President Trump called for an overall 16 percent cut in NOAA spending from $5.7 billion to $4.8 billion, climate research programs could be cut by up to a third. Even under a conservative estimate of just 23 percent, up to 50 CIMAS jobs could be eliminated.
“If it was just a workforce, NOAA could provide bodies,” Kirtman said “But we provide more than just bodies. We provide an intellectual resource.”
If approved, the cuts would severely hamper a 10-year effort to improve hurricane intensity forecasts and halt work on a next-generation global weather prediction system. The existing system is about seven years old, making it well overdue for an upgrade, Kirtman said. Last month, he headed to Washington to convince Florida lawmakers to spare the program and explain that the climate research it targets focuses on shorter-term forecasts that provide critical information for both commerce and strategic defense. Not the more controversial efforts to understand climate change.
“There’s this hostility to climate research where you get disproportionate cuts because people don’t realize that the OAR is the underpinning for all that climate research,” he said. “Our leadership in the world of making better weather forecasting is going to be severely challenged if we don’t continue doing this.”
A NOAA spokesman declined to answer specific questions but said no decision has yet been made on the move. Before any decision is reached, a more detailed analysis of cost must be performed, which has not yet been scheduled. Kirtman said UM is in the midst of putting together a counterproposal to St. Pete that would involve either a new building on federal property across from the Fisheries office or on the Rosenstiel campus.
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich.