ELLSWORTH, Maine — The Maine Department of Marine Resources is getting a $20,000 grant that it will use to help make it safer for its staff members to respond to whale entanglements along the coast.

The grant from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund will be used to purchase an inflatable, soft-bottom boat that will be used by Marine Patrol to help free whales from ropes in the ocean, the state agency announced in a prepared statement released this week.

The agency currently uses one or more boats with rigid, v-shaped hulls to deal with entanglements, but such boats can pose a hazard both to whales and the people in the boats if the whale should surface underneath the vessel, according to Department of Marine Resources staff. The hard bottom is more likely to injure the whale, which already could be sick or injured, than a soft-bottom boat. A hard-bottom boat also is more likely to tip or capsize if the whale pushes it up out of the water.

“[A soft-bottom] boat will help Marine Patrol significantly improve our ability to respond to entanglements,” Maj. Rene Cloutier, the Marine Patrol’s field commander, said in the release. “Our fleet of vessels is built to respond to law enforcement issues, but is not ideally suited for disentangling whales. We need a boat that is smaller, more stable, [and] more maneuverable when we work on large species like humpbacks and right whales.”

According to Department of Marine Resources spokesman Jeff Nichols, the agency responds to about a dozen whale entanglements along the Maine coast each year. He said that $18,000 of the grant will cover the cost of the boat, and the remaining $2,000 will be used to outfit the boat with necessary features, including the ability to inflate it on-site using SCUBA tanks.

He said the boat, about 17 feet long, likely will be kept somewhere in the Mount Desert Island area but that a precise location has not yet been determined.

Department of Marine Resources scientist Erin Summers is coordinating the purchase of the boat in consultation with officials from the federal National Marine Fisheries Service, according to the release.

“This boat will help Maine continue to improve our efficiency and performance in disentanglement response,” Summers said in the statement.

Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine are the only states on the East Coast with the authority and training from the federal fisheries service to deal with large whale entanglements. In Maine, one regular marine resources department staff member and nine Marine Patrol officers are trained and authorized as first responders for entanglements.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....