Legislature considers funding for new OIMB research vessel

UO research vessel at OIMB

A bill now before the Oregon Legislature would allocate $500,000 in state funds to build and outfit a new ocean-going research vessel for the UO’s Oregon Institute of Marine Biology.

The vessel would help the institute continue its research on marine organisms and ecosystems and provide transformative educational experiences to university and K-12 students as well as community members. It would replace an aging boat that is near the end of its useful life and is too small for current needs.

Students and faculty members from the Charleston-based institute traveled to Salem earlier this week to testify in support of the bill. The hearing was held before the Senate Education Committee

Institute Director Craig Young joined undergraduate marine biology major Fiona Curliss and doctoral student Caitlin Plowman to explain why a new boat is critical to coastal research and teaching capacity at the facility.

“I grew up in Oregon, and when I got to go on a boat from which we could see offshore marine biology communities, I saw things I had never seen in my life closer to shore,” Curliss said. “Those of us who want to pursue marine biology need hands-on knowledge as much as we need book knowledge. We need the equipment like this boat to see these communities.”

The 90-year-old institute in Charleston is a destination for students, scholars and visitors, who can take advantage of the distinctive marine environment. The UO’s undergraduate marine biology major is the only one in Oregon.

“The Charleston Center is a gem in Oregon that most people don’t realize,” said state Sen. Lew Frederick, a Portland Democrat who testified at the hearing. “It sparks a curiosity in a range of issues, not just in marine biology. It has the potential to become a premier center for biological research.”

Coos County Commissioner Bob Main agreed and said the boat, which would be built locally, would also boost the coastal economy.

“This project is so important to the economic impact of the community that Coos County commissioners have pledged $50,000 in lottery funds to this project, which is much more than we usually pledge to one project,” he said.

The marine biology institute offers experiential learning in several forms, including through boat trips on the RV Pluteus, the existing research vessel built in 1973. On the boat, students learn about oceanographic sampling methods using dredges and trawls and experience close-up encounters with deeper-dwelling sea life that they would otherwise not have the opportunity to see.

The electrical and engine systems on the Pluteus are reaching the end of their lives as safe and reliable components for sailing on open waters and in challenging sea conditions. The vessel also is too small to carry most of the UO’s classes for trips outside the bay. 

A new vessel would be designed and fabricated in Oregon, and if SB 255 passes, the state investment will be matched by philanthropic support.

The bill is sponsored by coastal legislators, including Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay; Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg; Rep. Caddy McKeown, D-Coos Bay; Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford; and Rep. David Gomberg, D-Central Coast. The measure moves next to the Joint Committee on Ways and Means for consideration.