Legislature delivers funding for new boat at OIMB


In October 2019, local leaders gathered on the dock at the University of Oregon’s Institute of Marine Biology (OIMB) in Charleston to get a look at an old boat. It had become clear that OIMB’s students and faculty had outgrown the current vessel.

The Pluteus was built in 1973.  Before it was acquired by OIMB, it was used in the relatively calm nearshore waters of the tropical Atlantic. The old engines and electrical systems have reached the end of their life, and it is too small to carry most classes of students to waters outside the bay in Charleston. 

“I have used our current boat my entire time at OIMB,” said Caitlin Plowman, a doctoral student who completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in marine biology at the UO in 2014 and 2017. “A new boat will allow us to go further offshore faster and to sample deeper depths, which will be great for students like myself who study deep-sea invertebrates.”

“As the number of students interested in studying in Charleston has continued to grow, and the type of research they are doing has expanded, OIMB had a good problem, but it was a problem we were determined to fix.” said State Senator Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay).

The group agreed to renew efforts to get the state to invest in a new research and teaching vessel that would be built right in Coos Bay by local company TarHeel Aluminum.

Recognizing the need, in 2019 the Coos County Board of Commissioners contributed $50,000 of county funding to help get the new boat designed, so that if state and private funding came through work could begin immediately. “Our job as elected leaders is to look for ways to revitalize our south coast economy. I was proud to work with the County Commission to invest in a project that would bring jobs to the south coast” said Coos County Commissioner Melissa Cribbins.

Efforts to secure state investment were almost successful earlier this year, but fell through when the Legislature became deadlocked over climate change legislation. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the economy took a dive, and the prospect of getting state funding seemed very low.

We were disappointed we couldn’t get (the funding bill) over the finish line (during the regular legislative session) in 2020,” said Craig Young, director of the Institute. “But we’re also energized by the support and interest of our leaders. The boat is a floating classroom that provides a level of student experience that cannot be obtained in any other way. It will also be a unique and important resource for marine research on the South Coast.”

Still, local leaders pressed on. “There was no way we were going to give up. OIMB is a treasured part of our community, they needed a new research boat, and local companies needed the work.” commented State Representative Caddy Mckeown (D-Coos Bay).

“We had a great story to tell, local and state dollars, leveraging private investment from the University, creating jobs on the South Coast at Tarheel Aluminum. Win-win-win,” noted State Representative David Brock-Smith (R-Port Orford).

Brock-Smith, Roblan, McKeown, and Cribbins all worked on the project, and their efforts paid off when lobbying legislative leaders to keep the money in the budget. When the Legislature released a 52-page bill to rebalance the state budget, filled mostly with cuts to other state programs, it included $500,000 to the University of Oregon for a new boat at OIMB.

“The university is grateful for this investment from the state that will allow us to improve the quality of our programs at OIMB. Students and faculty alike will benefit from being able to conduct research and exploration on this new vessel, said UO President Michael Schill.

In addition to helping add capacity and modernize research at OIMB, this project will have a larger legacy. Building a new boat is about more than just work for TarHeel—it’s about the future. When asked what this project meant to his company, Tarheel owner Kyle Cox said, “We’ve worked closely with the students and faculty at OIMB to design a boat that will meet the needs of marine research. When we are finished with this project, I will be able to say to prospective clients not only do we build and repair fishing boats, but we have experience in building research boats for universities. That will expand our business, and is good for the shipyard here in Coos Bay for years to come.”

The University is working with TarHeel to finalize the plans and construction on the new boat should begin soon, thanks to the work of South Coast lawmakers and Coos County commissioners.