Florida Keys News
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
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Undersea lab losing funding

KEY LARGO -- The Aquarius Reef Base, which has been tracking changes to the coral reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary for the past 20 years, will no longer be funded by a yearly NOAA grant. The loss could force the undersea research lab to shut down.

NOAA spokeswoman Karen Kohanowich confirmed that the Senate Appropriations Committee has concluded that no federal funding is available for the program.

"NOAA and its sanctuary program are working to help establish a non-profit foundation, but there is no money yet," she told the Free Press.

The laboratory is located three and half miles offshore at a depth of 60 feet near Conch Reef. Scientists and aquanauts live in Aquarius during 10-day missions using saturation diving to study and explore the ocean or simulate outer space conditions. Aquarius is owned by NOAA and is operated by the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Saul Rosser, Aquarius operations director for the past two years, said he was unsure last week whether funding would be cut at the end of the fiscal year -- Oct. 1 -- or the end of the calendar year. In either case, barring private funding, the project would pull out of Key Largo within the next eight months, leaving 13 scientists, divers and technicians looking for jobs.

"We are now on a reduced mission set and have three projects, one this month and one each in June and July," Rosser said last week. "This month [a researcher] from the University of North Carolina in Wilmington is here to do a coral and sponge study. In June we will take up where we left off last November with the simulated asteroid landing."

The coral-sponge study looks at the re-emergence of soft sponges on the reef and its relationship to the slow decline of hard corals.

Perhaps Aquarius' most publicized mission was aborted this past November due to the threat of Hurricane Rina in the Caribbean. The storm dissipated but the mission to prepare astronauts to one day intercept an asteroid deep in space was scuttled, only to be tried again this coming June.

Two deep-water submersibles will again be on hand to simulate space ships and the zero-gravity of the ocean will serve to simulate space.

In the five days before the mission was aborted last year aquanauts completed six underwater "space walks," simulated space travel in the one-man submersibles and worked on operational concepts such as communicating with a 50-second delay, just as astronauts might experience working in deep space. The project is inspired by President Barack Obama's proposed 2025 deadline for NASA to land humans on an asteroid.

July's program is still in the works, according to Rosser.

"We are hoping to get a high-profile marine scientist here to show off the value of the habitat," he said. "This is intended to be an outreach mission. Over the years we have had scientists from around the country come here to work with us. On the positive side, it's not over yet."

There is a movement afoot to find private grant funding to keep the lab operating.

Islamorada resident Debra Illes confirmed an effort to form a non-profit organization to support the Aquarius.

"This group consists of people from the Upper Keys, throughout Florida, Washington D.C. and the West Coast who want to continue this great operation and secure the future," she said. "We're going to need funding right away."

Aquarius science manager Otto Rutten, who has worked with the project for past 18 years, fears it would take "a miracle" to save the program.

"Those of us who have been here a long time have worked ourselves into a niche that no longer needs to be filled," he said. "We are all UNC-Wilmington employees but we have worked on an annual grant from NOAA and were hired based upon the availability of the grant. We don't have good political power, so the whole program could go away and the facility would be gone."

In 2011, Aquarius received $1.2 million in federal funding, with some additional funding from other scientific groups that use the facility.

"On a good year -- actually an average year -- we have received $2.6 to $2.8 million. Even that is not adequate," Rutten said. "We have been underfunded for quite a while."

sgibbs@keysnews.com

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