NEW BEDFORD — The federal government is considering renovating one of the oldest and most influential marine science centers in the country, prompting some to lobby for the facility to relocate across the bay to New Bedford, the nation's commercial fishing hub.
The Northeast Fisheries Science Center has been in the Falmouth village of Woods Hole since 1871. The current home was built in the 1960s and is surrounded by younger scientific organizations.
New Bedford is about 15 miles northwest of Woods Hole across Buzzards Bay but about 40 miles when traveling by land.
The federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is considering a renovation plan for the science center, which is aging, crowded and short on laboratory space. A consortium of local and state officials from the New Bedford area is lobbying for the center to move to the historic city, which is the country's top ranking fishing port in dollar value.
Moving the center, which conducts science that is critical to federal fishing regulations, would take it away from Woods Hole's other key marine science institutions, which include the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Marine Biological Laboratory and Woods Hole Research Center.
But New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said such a move would bring regulators and fishermen closer together and build trust — a currency lacking in an industry where scientists and professionals are often at odds.
"There's deep distrust of NOAA in fishing communities up and down the East Coast," Mitchell said. "Promoting physical proximity of the two groups would go far, in my view, to undo that problem."
It's far too early for NOAA to say whether the science center will be upgraded, let alone if it could possibly move, said Teri Frady, a NOAA spokeswoman. An initial study about possible upgrades is expected by early summer, she said.
NOAA is determining if it needs a different facility and how to proceed, but is far from having cost estimates or a building plan, Frady said. However, she added that the current center is tight, and the labs need improvement.
"Our staff is really outstripped to capacity in this building," she said.
If NOAA does decide to move the center, New Bedford will face competition. Newport, Rhode Island, where a NOAA research vessel is based, is one possibility.
And local officials in Falmouth are ready to fight for the center to stay where it is. Doug Jones, the chairman of Falmouth's Board of Selectmen, sent a letter to NOAA in December saying Woods Hole's status as a community that promotes science would be compromised if the center moved.
"Its history and accomplishments are inextricably interwoven with the history of Woods Hole," Jones wrote.