Honolulu’s flagship National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel — the Hiʻialakai — has spent the last several months rusting in an Oregon boat dock, and there are no plans to return it to service.

While in Hawaii, the Hi’ialakai harnessed its specialized scuba diving capabilities to perform a variety of missions, including monitoring deep-sea wildlife and cleaning up fishing debris from the shores of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

NOAA discovered structural issues — including extensive corrosion, pipe failures and propulsion problems — during an inspection late last year, according to David Hall, public affairs specialist at NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations.

The Hi’ialakai while it was stationed in Honolulu was used for a variety of ocean research projects. Courtesy of NOAA

The 35-year-old ship is now at a NOAA facility in Newport, Oregon.

The decommissioning of the 224-foot vessel forced NOAA to cancel a scheduled marine ecosystem assessment while also shifting the rest of NOAA’s workload to replacement ships, Hall wrote in an email after declining to be interviewed. Past ecosystem assessments have included comprehensive wildlife surveys of coral reefs and fish population studies.

U.S. Rep. Ed Case, who represents Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District, said NOAA now faces the challenge of adjusting an already fully staffed, multi-year research cycle to accommodate the Hiʻialakai’s retirement while also maintaining the safety of its researchers.

“I think NOAA is doing a good job of trying to keep the research on track, but it’s using all the tools that it has to do that,” Case said. “It’s got existing NOAA ships, it’s got the resources now to contract for gaps in its coverage.”

‘It’s Not Going To Sail Again’

Case said the timing of the Hiʻialakai’s decommissioning last winter mitigated the effects of its absence, since the majority of NOAA’s research in the Pacific takes place during the calmer summer months.

Case has long been familiar with the Hiʻialakai. During his first stint in Congress from 2002 to 2007, he joined its crew for a five-day educational research cruise.

“I know it well, I know it from that trip, and it was not a new ship,” Case said. “It was a ship that was purchased by NOAA and repurposed to NOAA’s needs.”

Congressman Ed Case speaks about the Mueller report.
U.S. Rep. Ed Case spent five days aboard the Hiʻialakai during his first stint in Congress. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

NOAA chose to abruptly decommission the vessel instead of spending the winter season fixing it, Case said, because the issues were “just too severe to repair.”

“You would spend far more repairing the ship than any kind of cost-benefit could justify,” Case said.

“It’s not going to sail again.”

Case said finding a replacement for the Hiʻialakai was one of the first things he advocated for after he took office in January.

As a temporary replacement, Case said NOAA is sending the Rainier — a 231-foot research vessel originally stationed in Newport, Oregon — later this month. The Rainier will work with the Oscar Elton Sette, NOAA’s second ship home-ported in Honolulu, to conduct much of the Hiʻialakai’s scheduled research.

Specialized Equipment That’s Hard to Replace

While stationed at Pearl Harbor, the Hiʻialakai’s research centered around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and the Western Pacific, gathering data on the coral reef ecosystem, fish populations and even underwater shipwrecks.

The Hiʻialakai carried specialized diving equipment, including a three-person decompression chamber, that allowed scientists to participate in deep-water dive projects.

During a 103-day assessment of the coral reefs surrounding American Samoa — the vessel’s longest voyage — the Hiʻialakai launched more than 3,500 dives from all three of its dive boats.

Case said neither of the two replacement ships have the capabilities to deploy the same level of scientific research diving as the Hiʻialakai, forcing NOAA to improvise to continue its scheduled research.

“NOAA is trying to think about some novel ways of doing it,” Case said. “For example, it’s possible that they would be able to use a kind of a portable dive chamber that could be bolted to another ship. But they’re still sorting that one out.”

Case said that NOAA is planning to update its fleet by commissioning an additional six research vessels over the next 10 years, and that he advocated as a member of the House Appropriations Committee to include about $75 million in the 2020 federal budget to begin funding these purchases.

Case said that he would also push for the first new ship to be stationed in Honolulu as a permanent replacement for the Hiʻialakai.

The ship first set sail as the USS Vindicator in 1984 and was initially commissioned by the Navy as an oceanic surveillance vessel before being converted into a Coast Guard cutter for use battling drug smugglers.

Transferred to NOAA in 2001, the ship underwent a $4 million conversion into a research vessel and was commissioned as the Hiʻialakai. It was stationed in Honolulu in 2004.

Case said that the ship will likely be sold either for scrap or other nonsailing purposes.

“If it’s not seaworthy for NOAA, it’s not going to be seaworthy for anybody else,” he said.

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