FORT HANCOCK – It was a show of solidarity last Thursday as both New Jersey’s U.S. Senators joined a congressman and other concerned officials to express their support for the James J. Howard Marine Lab, which is in danger of being shuttered by the federal government for budgetary reasons.
“This is a powerful, powerful message,” said Clean Ocean Action Executive Director Cindy Zipf at a press conference outside the lab last Thursday.
The leader of the nonprofit ocean advocacy organization joined U.S. Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, U.S. Representative Frank Pallone Jr. (all Democrats), in voicing their strong objections to the possible closing of the marine research facility in the Fort Hancock portion of Sandy Hook.
Pallone, who represents New Jersey’s 6th Congressional District which includes Sandy Hook, said he was surprised when President Barack Obama presented his 2013 budget to Congress, to see a line item to indicate to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that the facility should be closed.
Pallone said the facility was earmarked for closing as a cost-saving measure.
According to Teri Frady, a spokesperson for NOAA fisheries, the president’s budget had “no funding to continue the lease arrangement” to continue to operate the lab here.
NOAA is planning to relocate its operations to facilities in Milford, Connecticut, and Oxford, Maryland, probably in the first quarter of 2013, according to Frady.
When he asked NOAA for hard figures about the cost savings to be realized by closing the facility, “We didn’t really get any specifics about the cost,” Pallone said.
Pallone, along with Menendez and Lautenberg, have begun lobbying the congressional Appropriations Committee to secure the funding to keep the lab open, Pallone said.
“We have a really good case that this doesn’t make sense,” said Pallone, about the lab’s closing.
“There is too much emphasis on cutting in Washington,” Lautenberg said, vowing to continue to fight to restore the funding for the facility.
The work being done at this facility, Lautenberg and others said, has resulted in important research that benefits the environment and has had positive effects on the state’s economy as well as environment.
“We cannot afford these losses in New Jersey,” Lautenberg said.
“The science that emanates here will resonate for generations,” Menendez said.
There are NOAA facilities that can be relocated successfully. “This is not one of them,” Menendez said.
“I look at how these decisions are made, Fort Monmouth, and I shake my head,” said Tom Fote, legislative chairman of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association, a sport fishing group.
“This is truly a wrong decision,” Fote said.
Zipf told of her love of the shore, recounting her memories of coming to Sandy Hook as a child and “turning over rocks.”
In college, while studying to be a marine biologist, she had the chance to intern at the Howard lab and called it “an extraordinary experience.”
Her work at the marine lab inspired her to become an advocate for the ocean, which “spurred on the whole idea of Clean Ocean Action” and the importance of promoting “the integrity of science.”
Research performed at the marine lab, she and the elected officials said, confirmed the contamination caused by offshore dumping and helped to spark the campaign to stop it.
Clean Ocean Action is circulating a petition in support of keeping the facility at Sandy Hook. So far, Zipf said, her group has collected approximately 6,200 names.
“The power is with the people to make the difference,” she said.
The marine lab at Sandy Hook first opened in 1961, but was destroyed by fire in 1985. The late James J. Howard, then the Democratic congressman for the district, worked to secure the funding to restore the facility. “We remember how determined dad was to get the lab rebuilt,” recalled his daughter, Marie Howard, who was on hand last Thursday to support the effort to retain the facility at Sandy Hook. “The lab was close to my dad’s heart.”
NOAA conducted a groundbreaking ceremony in 1989, with the rebuilding completed in 1994. The newly rebuilt facility was dedicated to Howard, who died in 1988.
The 36,000 square-foot marine lab conducts research on marine life and the ecology of the coastal waters, including how contaminants affect fish and shellfish development, aids NOAA’s regional fishery management and habitat program, and conducts ongoing studies on the impact of climate change, according to NOAA.
It has a 32,000-gallon research aquarium and hosts post-doctoral students and from seven to 12 summer interns.
NOAA spends roughly $1.2 million for debt service and $1.6-$1.8 million annually for operational costs, and about $3.6 million for science projects.
The current lease runs until December 2013.