NOAA to open $150M marine research base in Newport

By: - March 16, 2023 12:33 pm

The 209-foot Henry B. Bigelow (R 255), a fisheries research vessel, is shown docked at Naval Station Newport in Middletown in 2016. (Photo by Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current.)

A federal marine operations and research base is shipping off to Aquidneck Island.

U.S. Sen. Jack Reed on Wednesday announced that the government was finalizing plans to relocate the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Operations Center from Norfolk, Virginia, to Newport Naval Station. The $150 million project will bring about 200 jobs to the Ocean State, cementing its position as a leader in the blue economy and fostering economic growth, Reed said in a statement.

Rhode Island already houses two flagship federal research vessels, based out of the Newport Naval Station and the U.S. Maritime Resource Center in Middletown: the 209-foot fisheries vessel Henry B. Bigelow and the 224-foot Okeanos Explorer, which conducts research and operations including seafloor mapping.

The National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration plans to relocate its marine operations center to Newport. The $150 million project is expected to bring 200 jobs to Rhode Island. /COURTESY U.S. SEN. JACK REED’S OFFICE

Under the planned relocation, two more NOAA ships will be stationed at NASTA Newport. The Thomas Jefferson, a 208-foot long deep-water hydrographic survey ship that uses sonar to map the bottom of the seafloor, provides data that informs the management of fisheries, navigation safety, ice models, hydrodynamic models, and geological work. The other ship is the 244-foot Discover, a state-of-the-art oceanographic research vessel now under construction in Louisiana. Sponsored by Second Gentleman Douglas C. Emhoff, Discover is scheduled to join the fleet in 2026.

The additional ships will be accompanied by pier upgrades, a boat maintenance ship and a handicapped-accessible floating dock. On land, a 22,200-square-foot command center will house hundreds of agency employees and contractors who provide logistical, engineering and administrative support to the entire agency fleet, according to a statement from Reed’s office.

Two-year construction timeline

Reed touted the move as a “major win” for Rhode Island and a chance to grow partnerships with the military and area maritime agencies and research groups, including the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography and the U.S. Maritime Resource Center.

“Bringing this new NOAA Marine Operations Center – Atlantic to Newport could also lead to the migration of other marine and science-based companies looking to move their businesses.,” Reed said. ” It certainly means more cash in the community. And in addition to NOAA personnel relocating here and a spike in construction work, there will also be an opportunity to add good-paying administrative, engineering, maintenance, and logistical support jobs for Rhode Islanders.”

The government expects to award a contract for the project this fall, with a two-year construction timeline, a spokesman from Reed’s office confirmed.

The federal agency is also investing $200,000 to expand the National Marine Fisheries Science Center in Narragansett to support research about offshore wind projects and fisheries, according to Reed’s office.

NOAA falls under the U.S. Department of Commerce, headed by former governor Gina M. Raimondo. Described by Reed as the country’s “environmental intelligence agency,” its duties include weather forecasting, marine research and regulation of the offshore wind industry. 


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is a reporter covering State House politics along with energy and environmental issues for Rhode Island Current.