Until now no one has gotten a good look — or created a good map — beyond the three-mile territorial limit.

Within a week, the survey will produce the first maps focused on an estimated 50 square miles of sea floor about 15 to 20 miles off Maine’s coast.

Those maps, officials say, could aid in overseeing and managing the many uses of the ocean, such as shipping, fishing, aquaculture and wind energy development, as well as providing data for future decisions on marine matters and off-shore development.

Potentially, the area being mapped presents opportunities for fisheries and wind farms, tourism and shipping, among many others.

And when there are numerous — and possibly competing — uses, public officials have to safeguard the sea and ocean floor so that “the environment (can) be preserved,” said Maine’s Commissioner of Conservation Bill Beardsley, one of several state officials on hand Monday at the International Marine Terminal in Portland to announce the expedition and tour the EPA’s ocean survey vessel Bold.

The 224-foot-long research vessel is equipped with sampling, mapping and analysis equipment. The EPA is funding about $100,000 to $150,000 of the cost of the Bold’s six-day expedition; the state pays only for the salaries of its scientists who work on the mapping and the analysis after the voyage.

Just as the state needs a department of conservation for land-use planning, Beardsley said, it is critically important “to develop a topography of the ocean, moving into the 21st century … There’s the opportunity for economic growth but also environmental problems.

“The area we know least about is that submerged lane,” he said.

It is this swath of the sea in which so much activity occurs, including human commerce and future energy development, as well as the movements of marine mammals and some migrations of sea birds.

“The impact of what happens on land is not insignificant for what happens in the water” and vice versa, said Agriculture Commissioner Walt Whitcomb. “This innovative scientific research hopefully will provide more answers than questions concerning the interaction between our land-based natural resources and the ocean floor.”

Eight scientists are collaborating on the mapping. Equipment will run 24 hours a day throughout the week, compiling a “cascading waterfall” of sonic images of the ocean floor, said Matthew Liebman, an environmental scientist with the New England office of the EPA.

Also aboard are two scientists observing birds and wildlife and five scientists observing large marine mammals, such as whales and dolphins.

The mapping team — including marine geologists and scientists from the state departments of Conservation and Marine Resources, the University of Maine and the EPA — will take multi-beam sonar images of the seafloor at depths to 300 feet, as well as record and analyze everything from temperature and water quality to salinity and the presence of chlorophyll.

The new maps focus on a 50-square-mile area — about twice the size of Portland — which includes important lobster fishing grounds and potential sites for wind turbines and cables.

The collaborative research is the first of its kind attempted by the state, according to Matt Nixon, a senior planner at the state Department of Conservation and one of three principal investigators on the expedition.

“We want to get more accurate information about the ‘lay of the land’ of the ocean, much like a surveyor does on land,” Nixon said.

“All we have now are depth estimations, 19th century lead-line soundings, and sporadic, high resolution maps focused on very specific, small locations, typically inshore,” Nixon said. “It will be good to have an idea of true depth out there with sound-generated pictures of what the bottom looks like.”

Undersea mapping traces back to the late 17th century and, for more than 200 years, the method relied on various single-depth soundings, produced by lowering weighted lines into the water. When the lines went slack, it indicated that the bottom had been reached.

Several incarnations and acoustic and physiographic improvements occurred over that time, with sonar introduced during World War I, using underwater sound projectors. But perhaps the most dramatic changes came with the advent of computers and digital imaging and analysis.

The Bold scientific party is led by EPA Chief Scientist Liebman and two other principal investigators: Stephen Dickson, Maine Geological Survey marine geologist at the Maine Department of Conservation; and Carl Wilson, senior lobster scientist at the Department of Marine Resources.

Other scientists and observers are from the Biodiversity Research Institute, the University of Southern Maine and the University of New Hampshire.

The scientists will issue a final report within two months, with much of the data available online as part of a coastal atlas.

 

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