SOUTHWEST HARBOR — The meeting room of the Southwest Harbor Fire Station couldn’t hold the crowd that attended a Harbor Committee meeting Monday. The overwhelming majority of the people there were protesting a planned stop in September by the cruise ship Pearl Mist. More than 90 people were in attendance, and many were forced to stand outside and listen from the open door and windows.
Pearl Seas Cruises is proposing to anchor the 310-foot-long 210-passenger ship outside of Southwest Harbor on Sept. 21 and bring passengers aboard a 36-foot tender to the privately owned Beal’s Lobster Pier. There, they would board buses to tour Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. This would be the first stop for a cruise ship of this size in Southwest Harbor.
The announcement earlier this month about the potential visit has both fishermen and others up in arms regarding what would be a precedent in the town. Fishermen are concerned about damage to lobster traps and other gear. Others said cruise ship visits would negatively change the character of the town and that the passengers and buses would add to traffic congestion.
In response to comments, the Harbor Committee voted 5-0 to recommend to selectmen that a permanent ban be adopted regarding cruise ship activity in the town. The ban would not affect visits by the Maine windjammer fleet and other traditional maritime uses.
Whether selectmen can effectively ban cruise ships remains a question. While landings at town facilities can be regulated, it is unknown as to whether a ship anchoring outside the harbor in state waters and taking passengers to a privately owned dock can be banned. The matter is expected to be discussed at a July 18 meeting of the Board of Selectmen.
A representative of Pearl Seas Cruises, Eric Dussault, was at the meeting and, when questioned, admitted advertising for the cruise shows the port of call as Bar Harbor and not Southwest Harbor. The company was forced to find a different location because three ships are scheduled to be in Bar Harbor that day, he said. That exceeds the daily passenger cap set by the town.
Pearl Mist is the only ship owned by Pearl Seas Cruises. A sister company, American Cruise Lines, has eight ships, Dussault said. Cruises are advertised years in advance, he said. In response to a question about why Southwest Harbor wasn’t notified about the planned stop until earlier this month, he said he didn’t know who notified the town or when it was done.
Earlier this year, the Harbor Committee, with no knowledge of the plan by Pearl Seas Cruises, discussed the possibility of cruise ships stopping at Southwest Harbor. In April, the committee voted to recommend that selectmen take action to stop any cruise ship activity, a recommendation that wasn’t acted upon.
Committee member Corey Pettegrow said members were concerned about the destruction of fishing gear and that the town did not have the infrastructure to support cruise ships and the impact from passengers.
“We have a very busy harbor; we’re at full capacity,” Pettegrow said. “Please move down the coast. Leave us alone.”
Another committee member, Anne Napier, asked about transportation. Beal’s is at the end of the Clark Point Road adjacent to the U.S. Coast Guard base. Buses hauling cruise ship passengers would add to an already congested area.
Dussault said the company works with municipalities to minimize any traffic issues.
“If we need to, we use smaller vehicles,” he said.
The chairman of the town’s Planning Board, Mike Mansolilli, said he believes the cruise ship using Beal’s dock would be a change of use and need approval by the board.
“You’d have to go before the Planning Board to do this,” he said.
Fisherman Tommy Lawson expressed concern about the change in the character of the town if cruise ships began visiting on a regular basis.
“This would be a decrease in our quality of life,” he said.
His concern was echoed by John Zinsser, a summer resident whose other home is Charleston, S.C.
“I can tell you Charleston has suffered greatly by cruise ships,” he said, adding that Southwest Harbor officials should consider the impact this use has had on other communities.
The plan by the cruise ship company hinges on being able to bring their tender into the dock at Beal’s. The use already is prohibited at town facilities.
Justin Snyder of Beal’s Lobster Pound assured those at the meeting that there is no agreement in place with Pearl Seas Cruises at this time. He said the company wanted to hear input from all interested parties before a decision is made. He acknowledged that the dock is privately owned but added that his six-generation ties to Southwest Harbor are another consideration.
A message left for Snyder on Wednesday morning seeking comment on whether a decision was made about the tender landing at the Beal’s dock was not returned by press time.
Last year, Pearl Mist anchored off Northeast Harbor and unloaded passengers at the town’s marina. It was the first time a cruise ship used that port and the outcry that followed prompted town officials to ban cruise ships there.
Story Litchfield, who is a member of the Mount Desert Marine Management Committee, spoke about the effect the Pearl Mist visit had on Northeast Harbor. In that case, the town was given only 10 days notice.
“My opinion is the cruise ship companies don’t care about your community,” Litchfield said. “They’re in it to make money. If you let one in, then you’re going to open a door.”
At least one person was in favor of cruise ships in Southwest Harbor. Chloe Hatcher, who said she is a summer resident who works “in some capacity” with cruise ships, accused the Harbor Committee of having “very closed minds about this.” Her description of how ships visiting Bar Harbor already use Western Way, a passage off Southwest Harbor, was met with derision by Harbor Committee Chairman Andy Mays.
“You’re showing your ignorance in these matters,” Mays said, explaining that the ships do not use Western Way. “There are not plenty of options we can pull out of the sky.”
Pearl Seas Cruises has a history of booking trips without gaining the approval of local authorities. According to an April 9, 2016 story in USA Today, the company began in July 2015 advertising cruises to Cuba for the spring of 2016. However, the company failed to get permission from the Cuban government, forcing the cancellation of numerous trips. “Holding out hope for a last-minute Cuban approval, the line has been canceling the sailings one-by-one as the sailing dates approach, sometimes with just a few days notice,” the author, Gene Sloan, wrote.
Updated July 12 at 11:48 a.m.