BELFAST, Maine — With a gentle splash, the two small, unmanned sailboats dropped into the water Thursday morning off a dock at Front Street Shipyard under the watchful eyes of scientists from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
The sunshiny spring day provided perfect conditions to test the latest initiative from Belfast-based Educational Passages — an effort aimed at tracking Atlantic salmon as the smolts leave the Penobscot River and head toward their feeding grounds in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Greenland.
“I’m just so excited about this,” Dick Baldwin, organizer of the nonprofit program, said while listening for the metallic chirps that showed the ultrasonic receivers mounted on the 4½-foot-long miniboats were working. “It’s so nice to have legitimate scientific research on these boats.”
Over the last five years, 19 of the miniboats have prowled the world’s oceans, their attached GPS units reporting the boats’ locations back to sponsor schools. Students have been able to follow along and learn about ocean wind and current patterns, map reading, geography, oceanography, navigation and more, Baldwin said.
This year, they’ll be able to add more science to the mix, as two of this year’s batch of boats will be dropped in the Gulf of Maine with their NOAA receivers primed to pick up data from several hundred salmon smolts that have been surgically implanted with tiny ultrasonic transmitters.
It’s not an exact science, according to the NOAA officials. The wind-driven sailboats will drift around the gulf while the fish below them swim along still-unknown routes toward the north and east. Models seem to show that the path of the ships will imitate the route of the smolts, according to the scientists.
Paul Music, a fishery biologist who has been working on the miniboat project, said that the data picked up by the sailboats should help scientists learn more about the slow recovery of the Atlantic salmon, a once-abundant species that is native to New England rivers.
“It’s like a needle in a haystack to detect these things,” he said of the fish. “And it’s like winning the lottery when you get the data back. It’s invaluable.”
The two miniboats will fill in some of the gaps in the current fish monitoring system, an array of 10 fixed buoys in the Gulf of Maine managed by the University of Maine that scientists describe as an “EZ pass for fish” that doesn’t charge a toll.
“We’re trying to fill in some of the detail with little projects like this,” said John Kocik, a research fisheries biologist with NOAA. “This boat’s going to be out in the open ocean, and hopefully come across our fish.”
When the miniboats are released later this spring, they will send their GPS information every three hours so that scientists and students can watch their journeys on the Gulf of Maine, and hopefully learn more about where the fish feed and where they travel.
The salmon leave the Penobscot River as 2-year-old, 6-inch-long smolts. Two years later, they return as 10- or 12-pound fish — and more have been coming home to Maine, the scientists said.
“Ten years ago, getting 1,000 back at the Veazie dam was a celebration,” Music said.
But that number has been trending upward.
“We had a really good Atlantic salmon return in 2011,” Kocik said. “Over 3,000 adults came back to the Penobscot, the seventh highest [number] in the last 40 years. We’ve had a couple of good years.”
Baldwin said that he is pleased that the miniboats will play a role in the scientists’ work.
“It’s such a cool project,” he said. “It’s good for science, and hands-on learning.”