The results will hopefully prevent whale-ship crashes.

PORTLAND (AP) – A marine sciences professor at the University of New England in Biddeford has won a $581,000 grant to study the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Stephen Zeeman said he will track the whales using satellites high above the Earth and a network of ocean buoys. He hopes the findings will be used to prevent deadly ship-whale collisions and to help the whale avoid extinction.

“The ultimate goal is to be able to identify where right whales go and when they go there,” Zeeman said.

There are an estimated 300 or so North Atlantic right whales left in the world, and the federal government is under legal and political pressure to protect them from fatal ship strikes or getting entangled in fishing gear.

The money, to be awarded by NASA, will go to the university’s Marine Science Centers. Zeeman was expecting to receive final approval of the grant this week, but the offices of Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins announced last week that the project was approved.

Once the funding is formally awarded, Zeeman said he will set up a computer laboratory on campus and hire three full-time employees. Students also will contribute to the research.

Zeeman is an oceanographer who has used satellites to identify and study marine habitats in other parts of the world. His partner in the project is Scott Kraus, a biologist at the New England Aquarium in Boston and a leading authority on the right whale population.

Zeeman said researchers will compare historical migration records of the whales with satellite and buoy data that can provide such information as ocean temperatures and plankton distribution.

A network of research buoys in the Gulf of Maine also could be equipped with acoustic equipment to detect whale vocalizations when the animals are nearby. Using computer models, the data could help teach scientists why right whales choose certain places and where they are likely to go.

“At certain times of year, part of the population just disappears,” Zeeman said.

Eventually, researchers hope to tag some of the whales with battery-powered beacons that transmit their locations to the satellites. Tagging of marine animals, and right whales in particular, is a difficult task because the tags fall off, stop sending signals or cause harm to the animals.


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