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  1. Opinion

Column: Florida needs to pay for well-funded research vessels

Times staff writer Craig Pittman reported on a shakeup in the administrative structure of the Florida Institute of Oceanography caused by on-going budget and personnel problems and a series of mishaps with its new research vessel the R/V W.T. Hogarth. The article called the Florida Institute of Oceanography something of an "odd duck."

As the institute's director from 1988-2010, I know what that means. For those years the institute operated two aging vessels safely and reasonably efficiently because of long-tenured, experienced captains and crews. However, one vessel needed to be replaced, and we were frustrated attempting to raise the funds from the state to build a new research vessel, all the while enduring frequent annual budget cuts from the University of South Florida.

My successor as the institute's director, William Hogarth, was similarly challenged. The BP oil spill convinced everyone that Florida's institutions and agencies needed to be out on the ocean to fulfill their mission. One vessel was retired, and a much newer vessel was acquired with the help of USF and refitted to modern standards. Later, the members of the institute's consortium chipped in to build a new, smaller vessel, the W.T. Hogarth, primarily to serve the education at sea mission of Florida's universities. Having new facilities is one thing; maintaining and operating them is another. The institute's most recent director, Phillip Kramer, operated under increasingly severe budget restrictions that eventually had an impact on safe operations.

Florida must have safe, capable and well-equipped ships with experienced crews to support its many educational and research institutions and agencies. But how will these facilities be paid for and safely operated? I suggest that now is a good time to rethink the overall administrative oversight and responsibility for the institute. The budget is a target for cuts at USF. This is an untenable situation which will cripple Florida's capabilities to maintain a healthy marine environment in the face of the growing challenges of pollution, red tides, fisheries and climate change.

John Ogden, professor emeritus of integrative biology at the University of South Florida, is a former director of Florida Institute of Oceanography.