The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee approved a fiscal 2013 spending plan for NOAA on Thursday that includes an amendment to close the Northeast regional office of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Gloucester and move the bulk of fisheries management, administration and law enforcement to Silver Spring, Md.
Federal lawmakers from Massachusetts vowed a fight to keep open the NOAA's NMFS office in Gloucester, which was privately developed and built to specs provided by the General Services Administration. The edifice, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's newest and spiffiest regional headquarters among eight, sits in Blackburn Industrial Park, is assessed at nearly $13 million, and brings the city $169,185 a year in taxes.
The amendment was sponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Commerce, Science, Justice and Related Agencies. The Maryland Democrat said the region's federal waters are vast, extending from Maine to North Carolina and "we in the Bay (Chesapeake Bay) don't get calls back ... This office provides problems at many levels."
"Better centrally locating the facility at NMFS headquarters would allow for greater coordination with senior management at NOAA and the Department (of Commerce), while saving an estimated $1.8 million on rent and a yet unspecified amount on travel costs," the Mikulski subcommittee said in its markup. The budget flew through the full committee.
Whether the amendment survives Senate floor action later this year is uncertain; so are the chances of the Mikulski amendment in the House, where if faces a Republican majority. The federal budget year runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, so federal fiscal 2013 begins this fall.
Opposition to the shutdown of the regional office in Blackburn Industrial Park, which according to the subcommittee markup of the NOAA budget, "may leave a small local presence in the area," was voiced immediately by both U.S. senators from Massachusetts, by Congressman John Tierney, whose district includes Cape Ann, and former Mayor John Bell.
"It would be insane" to abandon Gloucester for the D.C., area, said Bell, who dedicated much effort in his third term as mayor to convincing NOAA to finance construction of the $14 million regional headquarters.
"As many times as we disagree with them," said Bell, "it is essential to have close access to the agency. There is not a fisherman who hasn't traveled to Blackburn to untangle things.
"Having NOAA handy is vital to have this fishery work in the long term. Efficiency could be very costly," Bell added.
Mayor Carolyn Kirk could not be reached for comment Thursday.
"I strongly oppose any effort to close the NMFS regional office in Gloucester and I trust Sens. (John) Kerry and (Scott) Brown will be fighting against this misguided effort and making clear the many reasons why this office should remain open," Tierney said. "Last year, I voiced my strong objection to Senate language requiring a full analysis on relocating the Northeast regional office closer to NOAA's headquarters. This analysis has not even been shared with Congress yet, but this hasn't stopped Senate appropriators from pressing ahead with trying to close the regional office."
NOAA's failure for multiple years to produce the analysis Mikulski had requested is said to have convinced her to press the point with her amendment.
"I understand the tensions are still there, but the issue here is Massachusetts jobs and direct access for our fishermen to the regulators whose actions affect their lives," said Kerry. "At a time when we need more face-to-face communication to improve trust and basic efficiency between federal regulators and our local industry, moving personnel away only creates another bureaucratic hurdle we simply can't afford. I plan to ask the Appropriations Committee to fix this, and I hope they will accommodate my request."
"I am disappointed the subcommittee would recommend closing the Northeast regional office at such a critical time for New England fisheries," said Brown. "NOAA is already too disconnected from our fishing communities. Moving their New England staff to headquarters in Washington can only make the situation worse."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3451, or email@example.com.