Storms again knock out critical weather buoy in ocean off Columbia River bar

ASTORIA, Ore. — A weather buoy 20 miles from the mouth of the Columbia River has stopped transmitting wind data, depriving fishermen of key information shortly before Tuesday’s start of the Dungeness crab season.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration device was installed this fall as a replacement for another that faltered. The newer-model buoy survived one big storm, but last week’s gale-force winds knocked out both its wind instruments.

“The combination of high winds and big seas really do a number on those buoys,” Coast Guard Cmdr. Mark Vlaun told the Daily Astorian newspaper. “Basically the buoy stopped transmitting.”

The buoy is a critical source of information for incoming weather at the North Coast. Commercial ships, tow boats, fishermen and recreational boaters rely on its real-time measurements of wind speed and direction, wave height and frequency, and barometric pressure to determine whether conditions are safe.

National Weather Service scientists use buoy data to make weather forecasts, Coast Guard officials use it to determine bar closures, and the Columbia River Bar Pilots, who escort billions of dollars worth of commercial ship traffic across the bar every year, use the information to decide whether to send ships docked in Portland on the eight-hour trip to sea and whether it’s safe to board incoming ships.

But the buoys have been unable to withstand severe fall and winter storms. At the conclusion of last winter, the four NOAA buoys closest to the Columbia River were all malfunctioning.

“We’ve been after the National Weather Service for five or six years to completely redesign these buoys,” said Dale Beasley, president of the Columbia River Crab Fisherman’s Association. “They fail every winter this time of year when we need them the most.”

Beasley said every crab boat has its own “threshold of pain,” and the buoy information about wind and swells is vital to captains deciding whether to head out or stay home.

“Some boats will stay home when it’s blowing 20 to 25, some will stay home when it’s blowing 30 to 35. Some will come home when it’s blowing 50, and some don’t come home,” he said. “Every day we have to determine whether or not to go fishing.”

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Fir is contracted to spend 100 to 150 hours a year providing the heavy lifting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration needs to pull the buoys out of the water for repairs and replacements. It could go out to the site of the broken buoy as soon as Monday, weather permitting.

“If it’s anything like it’s been lately, we’ll have to pick another day,” Vlaun said.

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