AUGUSTA, Maine — A Maine Department of Marine Resources biologist said lines on three red tide monitoring buoys in Cobscook Bay may have been cut deliberately and that the loss could have ramifications for shellfish harvesters in the area.
Last year, DMR deployed monitoring buoys around Cobscook Bay to help the agency quickly detect when red tide began rising to dangerous levels. Both fishermen and biologists credit the buoys with enabling DMR to keep some areas of the bay open to shellfish harvesting at the height of last summer’s severe red tide bloom.
But three of the 15 buoys deployed this year have been lost already, and Darcie Couture of the DMR’s red tide monitoring program said staff have “strong suspicions” that they were sabotaged.
Couture said three buoys are likely too many to be a coincidence, especially considering DMR didn’t lose any last year in Cobscook Bay or in the several years they have been deployed in southern Maine waters.
“It would seem unlikely that it is a natural cause,” said Couture, director of biotoxin monitoring.
While the buoys — similar to those used by lobstermen to mark their traps — cost only about $20 to replace, loss of the gear creates a significant gap in DMR’s data network for the bay.
It takes about two weeks for the shellfish “bags” attached to each buoy to filter enough water to provide accurate readings of the surrounding area. If red tide levels in other parts of the bay climb to unsafe levels during the next two weeks, DMR would be unable to confirm the safety of shellfish in those areas with replacement buoys, thereby forcing a wider closure.
“It would be back to the old days when the whole bay was closed when red tide showed,” Couture said. “[The buoys] worked very well last year.”
The department has numerous land-based monitoring stations around the bay, but it takes two full days to collect all of the samples because of the driving distance between each versus only a few hours by boat for the buoys.
Red tide algae, although naturally occurring, can cause sickness or death to humans that consume clams, mussels and other shellfish that have accumulated dangerously high levels of the organisms. DMR’s monitoring program ensures that harvesters are working in areas where the shellfish are safe to eat.
Couture said she could only speculate as to why someone would cut the monitoring buoys’ lines. Unlike some other DMR initiatives, red tide monitoring seems to have broad support in the fishing community, as evidenced by the widespread outcry earlier this year when the program was threatened by budget cuts.
Word is spreading inside Down East commercial fishing circles about the lost buoys.
Julie Keene, a clam digger and periwinkle picker from the area who has worked in the fishing industry all of her life, said she isn’t convinced the buoy lines were deliberately cut — or at least she hopes they weren’t.
Keene said the buoy lines could have been snagged by passing boats or disappeared accidentally by some other means. Local shellfish harvesters, like many in Washington County, struggle to get by and therefore depend on the monitoring program to keep areas of the bay open, Keene said.
Purposeful removal of buoys affects the livelihood of everyone in the local industry, she added.
“We’re really happy with the monitoring program and if somebody is deliberately tampering with the buoys, that’s horrible,” Keene said.
“For now, we are hoping that the new gear will stay in place,” Couture said.
The 2008 season was one of the worst on record for red tide in Maine, yet the monitoring program enabled specific areas all along the Maine coast to remain open to harvesting.
So far this year, some areas of southern Maine and a small area near Isle au Haut and Swan’s Island have been closed to some shellfish harvesting. For information and detailed maps on closures, go to www.maine.gov/dmr and click on “Red Tide Shellfish Closures.”