Surveys for Maine fishing community buttress new energy technology

By David McIntire, survey technician, Coast Survey Navigation Response Team 4

Down East Maine. For many, this conjures up imagery of rugged, fog-enshrouded coastline carved for centuries by relentless waves and violent nor’easters, where quaint fishing villages and misty lighthouses hug the shoreline, inhabited by hardy mariners who for generations have braved fierce storms and unimaginable winters to make a living where land and sea meet in perhaps the most spectacular way. Yet this is only part of the story where a nostalgic past embraces an innovative future. Eastport, Maine is no exception and NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey is proud to partner in that endeavor.

Fishing has been the lifeblood of Eastport’s economy for generations and, despite the influx of tourism in recent decades, many Down East families still derive their income from the sea. This may sound quaint and romantic, until you realize that the Bay of Fundy is not the idyllic, placid water of postcards and paintings. With tides ranging nearly 30 feet every few hours, inlets become rife with ripping currents as the back bays fill and empty through these narrow, rocky channels. It is within this treacherous environment that the local commercial fishermen risk their lives – and, over the past decade, a number of them have paid the ultimate price.

A navigation response team deployed to Maine's dangerous Cobscook Bay in 2010. The Eastport fishing community asked for full bottom surveys and updates to nautical charts after several men lost their lives when their boats capsized.
A navigation response team deployed to Maine’s dangerous Cobscook Bay in 2010. The Eastport fishing community asked for full bottom surveys and updates to nautical charts after several men lost their lives when their boats capsized.

In response to these tragedies, city council member Captain Bob Peacock of Quoddy Pilots USA worked with U.S. Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to ask one of Coast Survey’s navigation response teams to survey the areas that have proven particularly dangerous, including areas that had not been surveyed in more than a century. Over the course of the 2010 summer survey, the team shared important underwater data with the fishermen. Since the survey, there has been no further loss of life.

Part of what makes navigation response team data so valuable is its versatility to meet the needs of diverse users across various industries. Like many small towns, Eastport is seeking to expand its economic base to provide growth and jobs for the region it supports. The Port of Eastport is one of the deepest natural ports in the United States. Upgrades to the facilities have allowed the port to service more cargo than ever before, but the demand for larger ships and greater cargo require additional mapping to ensure that deeper draught vessels have the necessary clearance for passage and that the nautical charts reflect the current conditions. NOAA was able to share its data from their survey of the area to aid ship pilots and boaters in navigating the area, which will help provide greater economic opportunities to those living in Down East Maine.

But there is more to their economy than fishing and ships. In fact, the very geographic phenomena that make the Bay of Fundy unpredictably dangerous to boaters have proven to hold extraordinary opportunity for alternative energy. Enter the Ocean Renewable Power Company. Over the past decade, ORPC has been intent on harnessing the power of ocean and river currents to bring tide-generated electricity to the region. The same Coast Survey data that helped commercial fishing operations and aided ship navigation also played a key role in modeling the underwater landscape for the selection and placement of their tide-generated power systems.

ORPC is now deploying the Maine Tidal Energy Project by installing power systems that do not require controversial dams that might affect marine life or commercial shipping lanes. Last month, the New England Clean Energy Council recognized them with an “Emerging Company of the Year” award. The Energy Council noted that the project provides the first power from any ocean energy project — including offshore wind, wave and tidal projects — to deliver energy to an electrical utility grid in the United States, “thus giving the project global significance,” the Council stated in making its award. It also noted ORPC’s contributions to the regional economy.

“Based in Maine, ORPC has employed a total of 93 vendors, contractors and consultants on the project, with 80 percent of those based in New England,” the Council said.

Composed entirely of islands, Eastport is more than the easternmost city in the United States. This home to nearly 2,000 people, where Cobscook Bay and Passamaquoddy Bay come together in the Bay of Fundy, is also home to some of the most extreme tides, the largest whirlpool in the world, and unpredictably dangerous currents that accompany these phenomena. In this dynamic environment, NOAA’s hydrographic surveys buttress the intersection of tradition and technology, helping to preserve historic livelihoods and support future economic progress.

Eastport's fishermen deal with some of thesome of the East Coast’s most treacherous tides and currents.
Eastport’s fishermen deal with some of the East Coast’s most treacherous tides and currents.  Innovative technology is harnessing the energy from those conditions.

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