PORTLAND (AP) – A graduate student at the University of Maine is developing what she hopes will be less invasive way to monitor whales. And all scientists need to do it is a lasso.

Becky Woodward is working on a system that would use a lasso to attach a padded harness to a whale’s tail before the whale goes into a dive. The harness will be connected to a buoy that would travel behind the whale.

Inside that buoy will be a satellite tag that will follow the whale where it goes, providing scientists with some of the data they need to protect the remaining right whale population, which now hovers around 300.

The device would be less invasive than implanted tags. Such tags, she said, carry a risk of infection or rejection. “We’re trying to come up with the information we need but not endanger the animal,” she said.

Woodward, who is a mechanical engineer, not a biologist, first proposed the idea for a contest sponsored by the Canadian Whale Institute, which was searching for innovative ways to prevent whales from getting entangled in fishing gear.

Scientists are struggling to find ways to protect the whales from the deadly entanglements, which along with ship collisions could push them to extinction.

Woodward was a finalist in the contest, but her proposal to lasso whales was met with some skepticism, said her supervisor, Michael Peterson, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UMaine.

“People couldn’t decide whether to be appalled or thrilled,” he said, adding that Woodward’s training as an engineer fills a gap in whale research.

Woodward has pieced together small grants and developed the project further, shifting its focus from disentangling whales to tracking them. She was awarded $160,000 last week to pursue the idea.

Kate Sardi, assistant director of the Whale Center of New England in Gloucester, Mass., and research chair for the American Cetacean Society, said there is debate among scientists over whether the information that’s gleaned from implantable tags is worth the risk of harming whales.

“The noninvasive method, I think, is something we definitely need to explore a little bit more,” she said.

Woodward said she is testing materials on a fluke sample from a stranded whale to come up with a nonabrasive harness that won’t cut into a whale’s flesh.

She has also proposed a series of safety measures, which would allow the entire system to break away if a whale gets snagged in fishing gear.

Woodward hopes to meet with right whale researchers in September to find out more about what kind of instrumentation they would like to see inside the buoy.

Ultimately, she said, the device could be used to gather information about the environment the whales are moving through at any given time, or to track where a large proportion of the population goes for winter, which is still unknown.

“If we could find out where those winter habitats are, maybe there could be some protection for those critical areas,” she said.


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