A Snapshot of Our Nation’s Scientific Ocean Vessels

Today, the Administration released the Federal Oceanographic Fleet Status Report, a comprehensive Federal review of the Nation’s fleet of oceanographic survey and research vessels. These 47 ships are part of our Nation’s critical infrastructure, collecting vital information to help protect lives and property from marine hazards; measure and project global climate change and ocean acidification; enhance safety and security; and more. Here are just a few of the important activities our fleet conducts:

  • Oceanographic research and placement of sensors that enable hurricane and tsunami warnings;
  • Navigational mapping to facilitate safe and efficient transportation and trade among ports;
  • Collection of tactical and strategic oceanographic information in support of national defense and homeland security;
  • Assessments of living and non-living resources that can inform decision-making by managers and businesses; and
  • Marine-based biomedical research to accelerate the discovery of new pharmaceuticals and therapies. 

This report fulfills an action identified in the National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan, and supports the objective of advancing fundamental science and information.

The National Ocean Policy also called on agencies to work together cooperatively and share information. The new Fleet Status report indicates that interagency coordination is well-established among the Nation’s survey and oceanographic vessels, as manifested by data transmission practices and the sharing of equipment, scheduling, and ship design and construction plans.

The new report notes a number of challenges facing the oceanographic fleet. The costs of operating ships have increased dramatically–fuel costs have risen 400 percent since 2003, personnel costs and safety, security, and environmental requirements have grown, and maintenance takes longer and is more expensive for an aging fleet–but Federal agency budgets have not kept pace. Conventional budgeting practices also make it difficult to plan for repairs and fleet updates in advance.

The report concludes that the current US oceanographic fleet will maintain its capacity through 2020, and will become more efficient with the introduction of highly advanced ships and the retirement of older, less-capable vessels. Ongoing work to decrease fuel consumption and engine emissions will also reduce operating costs and help ensure that the Nation’s fleet continues to be versatile, efficient, and effective well into the future.

Deerin Babb-Brott is the National Ocean Council Director.

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