A Houma shipyard has begun building the first of two ocean research ships that are being billed as state-of-the-art.

Gulf Island Shipyards was awarded a $122 million contract last year by Oregon State University to build the 199-foot vessel, which researchers will use to study issues such as ocean dead zones, sea level rise and tsunamis.

“This new class of modern vessels will support future research focused on the physical, chemical, biological and geologic processes in coastal waters,” Roberta Marinelli, dean of Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, said in a news release. “This research is critical to informing strategies for coastal resilience, food security and hazard mitigation not only in the Pacific Northwest but around the world.”

Officials with Gulf Island, Oregon State and the National Science Foundation gathered Wednesday at the shipyard for the keel-laying ceremony, marking the start of construction.

The National Science Foundation chose Oregon State in 2013 to lead the initial design phase for a new class of research vessel for the U.S. Academic Research Fleet. The fleet is operated by a consortium of 58 universities and the federal government called the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System. Oregon State was also asked to lead the competitive selection of a shipyard to build the ships.

The ship will be called the Taani, a word from the language of Oregon's Siletz Native American tribe that means "offshore." It is the first in a class of vessels funded by the foundation. On June 6, Gulf Island landed a contract to build a second research ship for Oregon State University for $67.6 million.

The Taani is scheduled for delivery to Oregon State in spring 2021 and will be fully operational after a year of outfitting and testing, officials said.

The ships will be equipped to conduct detailed seafloor mapping, which officials say will reveal geologic structures important to understanding processes such as earthquakes that may trigger tsunamis. The Taani will have a range of greater than 5,000 nautical miles, with accommodations for 16 scientists and 13 crew members. It will have a cruising speed of 11.5 knots, or about 13 mph, and a maximum 13 knots. The ship will be able to stay at sea for about 21 days before returning to port and will routinely send streams of sensor data to shore via satellite.

“NSF is proud that the research vessel Taani will be the flagship for a new class of research vessels and eagerly anticipates decades of productive oceanography from Taani to support the nation’s science, engineering and education needs,” said Terrence Quinn, director of the foundation's Division of Ocean Sciences, which is funding the new vessel.

Gulf Island, whose oilfield fabrication facility and shipyard employ about 950 people combined, is one of Houma-Thibodaux's largest employers. Like others, it has been impacted by a four-year offshore oil bust that has stripped an estimated 16,000 jobs from the area's economy.

Louisiana economist Loren Scott, in an annual economic forecast released in late September, cited Gulf Island as an example of offshore oilfield companies  diversifying the types of work they do to offset losses.

In September, Gulf Island announced it will build a 245-guest riverboat for the American Steamboat Company. A month earlier, officials said the company finalized a deal to build a second 3,300-horsepower towboat for an unnamed customer. And in March, it received a $63.6 million contract to build the first in a new class of Navy salvage, towing and rescue ship. All of the projects are being built in Houma.

The publicly traded company, with operations in Texas and Louisiana, reported Thursday that it lost a net $10.9 million on revenue of $49.7 million for the third quarter of this year. That compares to a net loss of $3.1 million on revenue of $49.9 million for the third quarter of 2017. And it's down from a net income of $500,000 on revenue of $54 million for the second quarter of this year.

"Results for the third quarter 2018 reflect our previously discussed challenges with the underutilization of our fabrication and shipyard divisions," Kirk Meche, Gulf Island’s president and CEO, said in a news release. "However, awarded backlog is set to ramp up over the next several quarters within our shipyard division, and we expect to realize improvement in the overall utilization of our facilities."

-- Executive Editor Keith Magill can be reached at 857-2201 or keith.magill@houmatoday.com. Follow him on Twitter @CourierEditor.