A research proposal from Maine chosen to compete for NASA funding aims to predict the movements of key species in the Gulf of Maine and provide seasonal forecasts for the lobster industry.
If funded, the proposal from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences will attempt to develop models for real-time estimates of the distribution of fish and invertebrates in the gulf using Earth-system data, such as satellites, and observations from fishermen and researchers.
The three-year project was chosen to represent the state in NASA’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR, competition last month by the Maine Space Grant Consortium in Augusta, the administrator of the Maine NASA program.
A total of 28 states and Puerto Rico participate in the program, which provides seed funding for projects that improve the states’ nationally competitive capabilities in aerospace and aerospace-related research, according to NASA’s website.
Up to 15 research proposals will be selected for funding, according to a spokeswoman for NASA. About $11,250,000 is available for research projects.
The senior scientist of the Maine project, Andrew Pershing, of the Portland-based Gulf of Maine Research Institute, said providing predictions about the timing and volume of lobster landings, as well as the number of hard-shell and soft-shell lobsters, could help the industry avoid a repeat of the 2012 season.
In 2012, an early glut of soft-shell lobsters created more supply and demand, pushing the prices lobstermen received well below $3 a pound and leading to Canadian lobstermen protesting the low prices by blocking the delivery of Maine lobsters to Canadian processing plants.
Warming ocean water was partly blamed for the early season in 2012, and the Gulf of Maine has seen accelerated warming in the last 10 years, Pershing said. Current fishery management resources largely rely on historical catch counts, but the rapidly changing marine environment is creating the need for real-time predictions, he said.
“We’re encountering conditions that really we’ve never seen before,” Pershing said.
He said the predictions could be used by lobstermen, processing plants and distributors to prepare for the season several months in advance.
Along with the plan to develop the lobster predictions for various regions of the Maine coast, the researchers are interested in tracking and predicting the movements of small pelagic species, such as herring, mackerel and squid, Pershing said. Pelagic species live closer to the surface of the ocean.
Pershing said those species’ distributions can change dramatically from year to year, and they’re often important for commercial fisheries.
He said the vision is that people could consult a map online that shows where species can be found in the Gulf of Maine based on the current conditions.
The project is requesting $750,000 over three years from NASA, the maximum award for the program, but it would likely end up costing around $1 million with additional support for salaries provided by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay, Pershing said.
Terry Shehata, the executive director of the Maine Space Grant Consortium, said he hopes the models developed by the project could be exported to other areas in the country.
He said Maine has had good success in the past in seeking funding through NASA. The state has two currently funded EPSCoR projects.
The awardees should be notified in July.