NOAA’s latest research ship has close ties to San Diego
Will Bowen | Downtown News
There is a new ship in the harbor. Its name is the Reuben Lasker. It’s 208 feet long, 49 feet wide, and painted all white with some black trim. The Lasker supports a crew of 24 plus 15 research scientists, has a range of 12, 000 miles, and can stay at sea for up to 40 days at a time, cruising at speeds of 12-14 knots.
The Lasker is the latest survey ship in National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency’s (NOAA) fleet of 19 vessels. It was built by Marinette Marine Corporation in Wisconsin, on the shores of the Great Lakes, for a cost of $75 million, the funds of which came from President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — legislation meant to stimulate the economy.
In this critical period of climate change, rising oceans, and global warming, The Lasker — named for the late Scripps Institute of Oceanography professor Reuben Lasker (1929–1988) — has the important task of collecting scientific information about the ocean environment and the species in it, so that we can make the best decisions about how to manage our ocean resources and make them last.
The Lasker is a state-of-the-art research ship that makes use of sound as a data collection device. Just as we can use sonar to map the bottom contour of the ocean floor, we now also use acoustics to collect information on types and biomass of schools of fish, using their particular “sound signatures.”
It has a specially designed hull and propeller, shock absorbers on its engines, and insulated hatches, giving it a very low sound signature that will not contaminate the acoustic data being collected.
The Lasker replaces the David Starr Jordan which NOAA used for 50 years as a research vessel. The Jordan was sold five years ago and during the interim, NOAA has been without a survey vessel of its own. Before the Jordan, NOAA used a converted sailing schooner, The Black Douglas, to conduct its ocean going research.
Lt. Claire Surrey-Marsden is the Operations Officer of the vessel and third in command. She was educated at Florida Tech where she earned a bachelor’s in marine biology and is one of very few female ocean-going officers with NOAA.
After working for a time with the Fish and Wildlife Service, she joined the NOAA uniformed service, which along with the U.S. Department of Public Health, are the only two unarmed unformed services in the land.
Surrey-Marsden is currently helping gear the Lasker up for its first project, which will be an acoustic and observational survey of whales, dolphins, and marine mammals — such as sea lions — all along the West Coast from California to Washington State.
“Whales, dolphins, and marine mammals are an important asset to tourism,” says Surrey-Marsden, “NOAA is charged with the task of being a steward to the oceans so that we must keep tabs on these and all other species.”
Roger Hewitt, Ph.D is the assistant director of the NOAA Science Center in La Jolla. He has worked for NOAA for 45 years, the first 20 as a uniformed officer on NOAA research ships, and he helped design much of the scientific instrumentation on the Lasker.
“The Lasker works closely with our ground-based lab in La Jolla,” Hewitt said. “It is our eyes and ears on the water.”
Hewitt was educated at Santa Clara University where he earned a degree in civil engineering. He first went to work for NOAA making maps but decided he needed to know more about marine biology so he enrolled at Scripps Institute of Oceanography (SIO) in the 1970s, where he earned his doctorate as a student of Reuben Lasker.
“It’s not easy to have a ship named after you,” Hewitt said. “Reuben Lasker meant a lot to Scripps and fisheries science in general. He inspired a whole generation of students and was very generous with his time and his ideas. He was the father of the science of studying the factors that lead juvenile marine species to become adults — referred to as ‘recruitment to adulthood.’”
Recognizing that if people get too passionate about something a bias can form, Hewitt said it’s important to remain neutral.
“A scientist should strive to collect as much information as he can as fast as he can. And then he can say — ‘This is what the science is telling us.’”
Hewitt said we need to have a greater understanding of the role man’s activities have in the impact of long-term environmental fluctuations on the species of the ocean.
“You know we have had a ‘Green Revolution’ on the land. Perhaps it is time for a ‘Blue Revolution,’ where we recognize how important the oceans are in feeding the planet.”
If you would like to view the Lasker, a good vantage point can be had from walking out on the public pier connected to Cesar Chavez Park, which is just north of the Coronado Bay Bridge.
Additional information, including the ability to track the Lasker’s precise location can be found on the NOAA.gov website.