BAR HARBOR — Kate Pielmeier is spending several hours a day, four days a week this summer staring out at the water from the Schoodic Ferry as it travels between Bar Harbor and Winter Harbor.
She’s looking for harbor porpoises.
Pielmeier, a graduate student at College of the Atlantic, is a research associate in the college’s Allied Whale program. She is conducting a survey of harbor porpoises in Frenchman Bay to provide baseline data for what she hopes will be the continued monitoring of the animals’ numbers, movements and behavior patterns in the future.
“We don’t have fine-scale information for how porpoises use this area, how many are coming in each summer and what the fluctuation is throughout the summer months,” she said.
It would be good to know that, she said. Over time, researchers will be able to see whether human activities on the water are having any negative impact on the porpoise population.
“They go offshore a little bit, but they tend to stay a little closer and they don’t go very deep,” Pielmeier said. “So, by default, a lot of their activity is overlapping with ours. We don’t know if we’re having an impact on them or not, but it’s a potential issue.”
She emphasized that the harbor porpoise is not an endangered species.
“But as we increase our activities with cruise ships and general boating and fishing, it’s something we should be proactive about,” she said. “It’s a good thing to look at so we can be sure we’re doing everything we can to maintain this [habitat] as best we can.”
When you are on the water, it is very difficult to count animals that spend most of their time beneath the surface, typically coming up just long enough to take a breath. So, in addition to the visual survey Pielmeier is conducting, Allied Whale has placed six acoustic buoys in Frenchman Bay to record the rapid clicking sounds that porpoises emit. She said these echo-location devices will provide information on the number of porpoises in various locations at various times and whether there are “hot spots” where the animals tend to congregate.
Pielmeier said that, after she graduates next spring, she would like to stay on with Allied Whale to continue her research and, ideally, expand it to include photo identification of harbor porpoises.
“Then we could tell if it’s the same individuals coming in every day or week or month or if they are just passing by,” she said. “If it’s the same ones all the time, the [human activity in the bay] would be impacting them more because they’re experiencing it all the time.”