MOUNT DESERT — With so many lobster traps in the water near the entrance to Northeast Harbor in the summer, it is “absolutely insane” to think cruise ships could come in without fishermen incurring a “devastating” financial loss, lobsterman Terry Savage told the Board of Selectmen Monday night.
But Owen Craighead, owner of the Mount Desert Campground, said the idea of turning away cruise ships when the town is trying so hard to boost economic activity “smacks of total insanity.”
The selectmen delayed until at least their next meeting, on Nov. 7, a decision on the Marine Management Committee’s recommendation to ban cruise ships from bringing passengers to Northeast Harbor.
Town officials have gotten an earful from people on both sides of the question since the cruise ship Pearl Mist anchored off Bear Island on Sept. 23 and its tenders delivered about 175 passengers to the Northeast Harbor marina. It was the first cruise ship visit to the village in many years.
American Cruise Lines has tentatively scheduled 11 half-day visits to Northeast Harbor by another small ship next summer.
Lobster fisherman Jack Merrill, a local lobsterman and a member of the board of directors of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, told the selectmen that the idea of cruise ships traveling between Bar Harbor and Northeast Harbor “really scares me.”
He said it is impossible for cruise ships, even the smaller ones, to avoid all of the lobster gear on that route.
“The potential loss per trip I estimate would be as high as $50,000, and it might be more,” Merrill said. “Every buoy you see, if there’s two traps on it, could be earning a thousand dollars in the course of a year. There’s a lot of gear out there, and it’s there for a reason: People are making money.”
Another lobsterman, Tom Falt, said that allowing cruise ship visits would be “unbelievably devastating to the commercial fishery out here; you’d never make up for it.”
“The problem with Northeast Harbor isn’t not having enough people here in the summertime, it’s not having enough people here in the wintertime,” he said. “So if you want a vibrant, year-round community, you want independent, self-employed people who live here and spend money.”
Marine Management Committee member Story Litchfield said the quality of life in Northeast Harbor is at stake.
“I think this is a really slippery slope,” she said. “If you allow cruise ships in, it’s going to be [passengers buying] trinkets and T-shirts.” She said that’s what it’s like in Bar Harbor, where “in the summer, it’s insane, it’s terrible.”
Sue Spoelhof, general manager of the Kimball Shop on Main Street in Northeast Harbor, said her store did a lot of business on the day the cruise ship passengers were in town.
“And they weren’t buying T-shirts and trinkets,” she said. “They were buying higher-end merchandise and having it shipped home.
“We can definitely tell the difference between people who count their change and buy things under $10 and those who don’t. And this was not that crowd.”
Some other Main Street store owners have said Sept. 23 was a very good day for them, as well.
Given that, and the fact that the town is investing in economic development initiatives, Craighead said it doesn’t make sense to say, “No. Forget it. We can’t look at [cruise ships] at all.”
“I’m not saying we should go the way of Bar Harbor because I think it’s been quite miserable there with the amount of cruise ships,” he said.
Lobstermen aren’t the only ones who have expressed opposition to cruise ships coming from Bar Harbor and anchoring off Bear Island. A number of summer residents have complained about Pearl Mist ruining their view.
Litchfield said several of those summer residents have told her they might move away if more cruise ships are allowed, and they have sent her lists of the “multitude” of housekeepers, gardeners and other local people they currently employ who would lose their jobs.
Selectman Matt Hart said some of the arguments for and against cruise ships are subjective.
“When you hear the word ‘eyesore,’ well that’s subjective. The loss of fishing gear is something that seems like it’s objective in nature, and that does concern me,” he said.
Paul Taiclet, vice president of American Cruise Lines, sent a letter to the Board of Selectmen on Monday asking them to delay a decision on the recommendation to ban cruise ships. He asked for the opportunity “to present to the community of Northeast Harbor how we will address some of the concerns with respect to Pearl Mist’s visit and to outline the economic benefits.
“In addition,” he wrote, “this will allow more time for us to work with the Marine Management Committee on appropriate anchoring and tendering locations so [as] not to detract from the harbor views.”
The selectmen asked that Taiclet be invited to their Nov. 7 meeting to discuss the issue. In the meantime, the selectmen said they want to talk with people on both sides and to gather more factual information.
“I think it’s important for us to have all the facts before we make a decision,” Hart said. “This is potentially an opportunity [for the town] and potentially a disaster. We want to avoid a disaster and see if there is potential in that opportunity.”