The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says work will begin soon on a new office building and pier in Ketchikan. The agency says the project will allow it to bring the research ship Fairweather to its official home port in the southern panhandle.
While the Fairweather spends much of its time at sea mapping the seafloor, studying fisheries and searching for shipwrecks in Alaska, the research vessel hasn’t had a home in the state since at least 2008.
Alaska’s junior Republican senator, Dan Sullivan, says he has been pushing to base the Fairweather in Ketchikan for years.
“It’s good to finally get an important win. It’s going to be important for science, important for our economy, research. But also, I think (it) signifies more opportunities for Coast Guard, Navy and other research vessels to come to Southeast and make an impact for our state and our country,” Sullivan said in a phone interview.
Sullivan says moving the Fairweather to Ketchikan would bring about 50 jobs to the area, though a NOAA spokesman says it’s too soon to know for sure. The project includes a new NOAA office, a floating pier and upgrades to power and water systems for visiting ships.
The late Sen. Ted Stevens inserted language in a 2002 bill that moved the Fairweather’s official home port to Ketchikan. But the ship hasn’t had an Alaska home since 2008, when NOAA’s Stedman Street dock was condemned as unsafe. It’s spent the intervening years based out of the Lower 48 with occasional calls at Ketchikan’s Coast Guard base.
“Most of its research missions are in Alaska, about Alaska, whether it’s the oceans, environment, fisheries, surveys, and to me, it just makes complete sense,” Sullivan said. “That’s where the mission is. And that’s where the ship should be homeported.”
Sullivan says he pressed Biden administration Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, whose agency includes NOAA, to keep a promise Sullivan extracted from the Trump administration in 2019 to bring the Fairweather to Ketchikan.
“This was the No. 1 issue I raised with Secretary Raimondo when she was going through her confirmation process — the No. 1 issue. And you know, I also let her know that her predecessor, Wilbur Ross, made this commitment,” he said.
Raimondo said in a statement that the project “will enable the agency to support safe navigation and commerce in Alaska and the region more effectively than ever.”
Sullivan credits Sitka state Sen. Bert Stedman for coming up with a novel approach to fund the project. Alaska pitched in about $7 million for the federal facility through a grant to Ketchikan’s borough, which was later transferred to NOAA.
Stedman says he’d like to see more resources moved to Alaska — like an expansion of the naval test facility on Back Island just north of Ketchikan.
“There’s no reason for Alaska to be treated like a territory or a third-world country and everything based out of Washington State. Ships and facilities should be in Alaska, where they belong,” Stedman said.
Ketchikan Borough Mayor Rodney Dial calls it an “amazing win” for Ketchikan.
“This represents hundreds of thousands, if not millions, into our economy every year for many different sectors,” Dial said. “A vessel this size requires expensive maintenance — we’re going to argue that that should be done at our shipyard. There’ll be fuel that will be sold, supplies, employee payroll, and all of that will circulate through our economy.”
He says he hopes the federal spending will help the area reduce its reliance on tourism as an economic driver.
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy thanked NOAA for its commitment and said moving the survey ship to Ketchikan would enhance U.S. national security amid rising tension in the Arctic. He said the move was “long overdue.”
The $18.7 million construction contract was awarded to a subsidiary of Ahtna, the Alaska Native regional corporation based in Glennallen. The company will start by removing the existing pier.
NOAA expects to finish the project by December of 2022.