EASTPORT, Maine — Federal officials began setting up this week to map the bottom of Cobscook Bay and parts of the Bay of Fundy to help determine whether any uncharted ledges or outcroppings are responsible for the sinking of vessels and the death of more than 16 fishermen in recent years.
The three-man crew of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s hydrographic Navigation Response Team arrived in Eastport Monday and immediately began preparations to survey the bottom of Cobscook Bay over the summer and into the fall.
NOAA’s navigation services usually are working at much larger commercial ports — some with as many as 200 ships a day moving in and out — or supporting national security.
But at Eastport, the matter truly is one of life and death.
“It is the loss of life that drew us here,” Cmdr. Lawrence T. Krepp, the team’s chief, said Tuesday.
Fishing communities throughout the Bay of Fundy have lost 16 men in a series of vessel sinkings over the last five years. Since December 2008, there have been seven fishing-related deaths in Cobscook Bay alone.
Local sea pilot Capt. Robert Peacock spearheaded the effort to get the Navigation Response Team to Maine.
Peacock knew nearly all the lost fishermen.
“I don’t want to see [any deaths] happening again,” Peacock said Tuesday after a response team briefing with fishermen, city leaders, Eastport Port Authority officials, the Maine Department of Marine Resources, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Border Patrol and representatives from the local aquaculture and hydropower companies.
The survey operations will take place in the Bay of Fundy, particularly in Cobscook Bay, Krepp said. Any dangers to navigation will be updated immediately on marine charts.
“Any item that sticks up one meter or more off the bottom will be immediately reported to local fishermen,” Krepp said.
The last official survey of the bay was in 1899, when measurements were taken by hand, using lead line.
With the bay’s astronomical high tides — from 12 to 22 feet — and extremely strong currents, much likely has changed since then. Local fishermen particularly want to know what has been sinking draggers near Falls Island and speculate there is unmarked, uncharted ledge below.
Krepp said Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins asked NOAA for the full bottom survey.
Equipment brought to Maine includes a 28-foot Sea Ark vessel, single-beam echo sounder, side scan sonar and multibeam sonar.
Krepp also promised Peacock and others that should the hulls or debris of any of the sunken boats become known, their locations will be marked as navigational obstructions on the charts.
In November 2009, a four-person NOAA team, using side scan sonar, located the wreck of the All American fishing vessel, which had sunk the previous March.
Peacock said the U.S. Navy divers are very interested in working in Cobscook Bay should any wreckage be found because of the challenges of diving in such turbulent, unpredictable waters.
At Tuesday’s briefing, Krepp and the others brainstormed about everything from the location of salmon pens to cottages for rent, but mostly coordinated their efforts. They made sure they could communicate with local fishermen, informed themselves about the regulations concerning working around the permitted fish pens, and asked for local help in navigating the treacherous area near Reversing Falls.
Krepp said it was “truly odd” that NOAA was in an area like Eastport. “We are usually in the major ports. You are taking us away from New York City,” he said. “But this is a fantastic opportunity. By the time we leave here, you won’t have an 1800s chart. You will have a 2000s chart.”