ISLESFORD — Lobsterman Mark Fernald of Islesford and Bar Harbor was checking a line of traps about six miles north of Mount Desert Rock last Wednesday, Jan. 10, when he noticed that the Eastern Maine Shelf Buoy, about 500 feet away, didn’t look right.
He went closer and saw that the buoy was sitting low and tilted in the water and the tower on top of the buoy was nearly broken off.
That buoy is a crucial part of a system of oceanographic buoys that a team of scientists at the University of Maine designed, built and deployed in the Gulf of Maine. The buoys gather and transmit data about ocean temperatures, currents and salinity levels, as well as air temperature, wind speed and direction and the height and frequency of waves.
In addition to being used by researchers, fishermen and others who make their living on the water rely on the data to learn about weather and sea conditions in various parts of the gulf before venturing out.
The University of Maine’s buoy network is part of the Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal Ocean Observing Systems based in Portsmouth, N.H.
J. Ru Morrison, executive director of the association, said all of the Eastern Maine Shelf Buoy’s meteorological sensors, as well as some solar panels, are on the damaged tower.
“Those towers are held on with a few bolts,” he said. “It’s a bit precarious as it is.”
Morrison said the sensors that are located in the buoy’s hull and those suspended beneath the ocean surface have continued to record data since the damage occurred.
“But it hasn’t been sending any of the information home because the antenna is under water, as well,” he said.
He said the University of Maine’s Ocean Observing System team was setting out to assess the damage to the buoy and determine whether the tower can be replaced.
“The other option is to replace the whole mooring because it’s due for replacement,” Morrison said. “I think that’s something we would want to try and get done in pretty short order anyway because that buoy is just going to be sitting low in the water and not able to send anything back.”
No one knows what caused the damage to the buoy, but Fernald, the lobsterman who first reported it, has a theory.
“It must have built up with ice, with all that cold weather we had and not a lot of wind with it,” he said. “Then we got a big gale and, with all the ice on the tower, the waves had something to get a hold of and it just broke.”