Since 1996, a buoy in Penobscot Bay has provided up-to-the-minute data on currents, temperature, salinity, wind and waves to anyone who needs it. Turns out, a lot of people need it.

The owner of a small sailboat checks it to judge the safety of local cruising conditions in Penobscot Bay. A marine patrol officer monitors it daily, especially in the fickle weather months of fall and winter. The Coast Guard in Rockland bases their Personnel Protective Gear requirements (life jackets, dry suits, etc.) on the water temperature data from it, as well as accurate, local wind speed and wave heights, which dictate vessel operations and safety training exercises. A family of lobstermen uses it at least once a day to determine the weather at the moment, as well as what to expect for the rest of the day and the rest of the week. People who live on the islands use it to judge their ferry trips. Researchers are using it to study the effects of restoration efforts on water quality in the Penobscot River.

The buoy, originally developed by the University of Maine and the Island Institute as part of the 1990s Penobscot Bay Research Collaborative, is now part of the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System (GoMOOS), one of a network of regional observing systems around the country that are experiencing budget cuts.

This September, GoMOOS and the University of Maine announced they could only deploy six of the 11 buoys in the system.

“We have been able to piece it together over the last few years with help from the state, the university, and other sources even with decreasing funding, but we’re at the point where it’s just not enough,” said Tom Shyka of GoMOOS, the organization that manages the information from the buoys.

Buoy F in Penobscot Bay was one of the buoys scheduled to be mothballed up until a few weeks ago, when Maine Sea Grant was able to find support to keep it in the water. “We had a unique opportunity to find NOAA funds to help keep one component of this important network operational for another year,” said Maine Sea Grant director Paul Anderson.

The funds to sustain Buoy F were awarded to Neal Pettigrew of the University of Maine, chief scientist of the GoMOOS program who heads the team that developed and operates the buoys.

“When word got out that we were going to lose Buoy F, we received many expressions of alarm and regret from people who use the buoy data. They will be relieved that we have forestalled a serious loss,” said Pettigrew, adding that Buoy F represents the longest record of currents in the Gulf of Maine. “We learn something new from it each and every year.”

GoMOOS was created as one of the first pilot ocean observing networks in the country in 2001, at a time when the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy was recommending that $148 million be spent to create a nationally-integrated ocean observing system. In reality, funding for all U.S. ocean observing networks combined peaked at $42 million in 2005, and has decreased every year since then.

Originally supported by congressional earmarks, the regional ocean observing networks, including GoMOOS, are now funded on a competitive basis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“The good news is that we are part of NOAA’s budget. The bad news is that the funds fall far short of what is needed, and as a result programs are pulling buoys out of the water,” said Josie Quintrell, executive director of the National Federation of Regional Associations for Coastal Ocean Observing. Quintrell said that the regions are now working together to push legislation for a national, integrated network (with the help of Maine’s Representative Allen and Senator Snowe).

“Some of these buoys are the longest records we have in the region, and it is really tragic we have to lose that, on top of economic and safety concerns,” said Shyka of GoMOOS, who is looking for stopgap money to keep the rest of the buoys in the water. “Our hope is that more people who use the buoys will come forward to support the program.”