It could be as singular as preventing black gill disease, which is killing so many shrimp that biologists and shrimpers worry it might be depleting the tasty catch.

It could be as complex as quantifying how sick dolphin get after exposure to more human-made chemicals in the same water we swim in and eat from.

But the breakthroughs could well depend on research science that is being lost — a dollar and a staffer at time — at Fort Johnson.

At stake is the livability of a rapidly developing coast.

Funding has been cut sharply over the past 10 years for research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and S.C. Department of Natural Resources labs at Fort Johnson. The James Island site is a complex of state, federal and educational research facilities that includes the Hollings Marine Laboratory.

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Cheryl Woodley, a program manager at Hollings Marine Laboratory, explains on Friday, November 9, 2018, how they are studying what is hurting coral reproduction. Brad Nettles/Staff

In response to the cuts, staffing and pay has stalled or dropped. As longtime researchers retire, new graduates use the facilities as an entry-level job and often leave after only a few years.

That concerns former DNR research staffer George Hanna, who worked there for about two-and-a-half years. "With research, you definitely don't want people leaving all the time."

He is not alone. Former marine technician Peter Bierce, who worked at the agency for four years until 2017, said DNR researchers on multi-year projects worry about whether their work will be funded the next year.

As dedicated money disappears, ongoing research must rely increasingly on year-to-year grants. Staffers spend more time "swinging at every pitch," as DNR center Director Mike Denson said, to secure money to outfit research.

And it's beginning to have an erosive effect.

"The loss of staff and funding have reduced the potential for collaborations and created uncertainty for College of Charleston faculty about entering into such collaborations," said Robert Podolsky, director of the college's Grice Marine Lab at the Fort Johnson complex.

"We have been living for several years with the threat of cuts to government agencies that has created uncertainty about its future," he said.

At stake is a lot more than shrimp and dolphin. The cutting-edge science that takes place at the centers has helped regulators better manage everything from water quality to massive fish kills.

Among the examples:

  • A collaboration of NOAA, DNR and College of Charleston researchers recently found a chemical that people use every day in alarming concentrations in bottlenose dolphins in the Southeast; it evidently can interfere with the ability of both species to give birth.
  • In 2009, researchers isolated a compound in coral sponge that allows standard antibiotics such as penicillin to attack the most virulent, antibiotic-resistant bacteria out there.
  • In 2006, a combined DNR and NOAA study determined just how much rain runoff a nearby waterway could handle before it became too polluted to harvest shellfish.

The bleed

The NOAA center at Fort Johnson has seen its budget cut by almost two-thirds in 10 years. The DNR Marine Research budget improved but just marginally over the same time period.

The reliance on grants to meet those budgets — and the need to spend staff time looking for them — escalated dramatically. Grants paid for about a quarter of the NOAA facility's $12.5 million budget in 2017, compared to about one-tenth of its $29.5 million budget in 2006.

DNR's reliance on grants went from about one-fourth of its $15.4 million budget in 2006 to nearly half its $16.5 million budget in 2017.  

NOAA staffing was cut in half during the same decade, from 158 to 80. DNR's staff managed to hold at about 200, but they have had to do more multi-tasking to keep up with emerging demands. As veteran researchers retire, their work gets taken on by teams doing other research.

"There isn't anything we haven't been able to do that we need to," Denson said. "It would be nice to have additional funding so that people didn't have to work so hard to do what we need to do."

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Mike Denson is the director of of the Marine Resources Research Institute of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, where long-term cobia studies continue despite funding cutbacks. Bo Petersen/Staff

Sometimes the work is all but abandoned.

A single NOAA scientist now largely handles forensics when marine mammals strand — critical work in determining whether health threats exist that could threaten the species or humans. The forensics team once had 15 people.

A recent multi-year outbreak of a virus among dolphins turned out to be the most lethal in recent history: It killed about 300 dolphins off South Carolina among about 1,600 animals along the East Coast. NOAA's remaining scientist handled it with pitch-in assistance.

The funding hasn't depleted just staff, said Steve Thur, director of NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, which include the Fort Johnson center. The Hollings lab features advanced technology such a nuclear magnetic resonance machines. But there's little, if any, money to maintain and upgrade that equipment, he said.

Without upgrades, "we could be no longer able to do the cutting-edge science we could do," Thur said.

Hanging in there

And more public money isn't forthcoming.

Despite Trump administration proposals to cut back research funds, NOAA has slightly increased its research budget in recent years, Thur said. But "it has never come back up" to 2006 levels, he said.

State legislators told DNR officials this year to look at raising license fees to bolster its operating and research budgets. Only about one-fourth of the department's $106 million budget now comes from the general fund.

The money crimp has kept DNR researchers from doing more work in fields such as genetics and aquaculture, Denson said. NOAA researchers have been unable to focus on growing concerns such as storm flooding and the ensuing contamination, said Sherri Fields, NOAA's director the Charleston labs.

"That would be one area we'd certainly like to do more in," she said. 

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Sherri Fields, NOAA's director the Charleston labs at Fort Johnson, talks about funding on Friday, November 9, 2018. Brad Nettles/Staff

But both directors pointed out that their core work continues, and grants in some ways improve the process by keeping researchers focused on work that makes a direct difference in people's lives.

"The staff is pretty entrepreneurial," Denson said. The department's mission to conserve wildlife "makes us sort of unique. There's nothing in the private sector that competes with us."

But the challenges remain. On the heels of finding $1.8 million to rehabilitate the department's only deep water research boat Palmetto — which does the field work for both DNR and the NOAA lab on the prized-catch snapper grouper fisheries — work is now needed on the research vessel Lady Lisa.

The shallow water trawler surveys for 27 species of finfish and crustaceans, including shrimp, crabs, horseshoe crabs, sea turtles, mantis shrimp and squid. It's the only regionwide survey, ranging from Cape Hatteras, N.C., to Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Its work provides the crucial research data for keeping the stocks healthy of those sought-after marine species. 

Asked what he would like to have that the budget doesn't allow now, Denson flashes a rueful grin.

"It would be nice to get a new boat every now and then," he said.  

The Palmetto is now 26 years old, while the Lady Lisa 39 years old. Both were bought secondhand.

Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.