AUGUSTA — Officials of the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Maine Tourism Association last Thursday testified against a bill in the Legislature that would ban cruise ships and other large commercial vessels from the waters between Mount Desert Island and the Cranberry Isles.
The bill to designate the area known as Great Harbor as a “small vessel sanctuary” would prohibit “the operation, mooring or anchoring of commercial vessels over 200 feet in length or with the capacity to carry more than 100 passengers in the waters of southern Mount Desert Island.”
The bill was introduced by Rep. Brian Hubbell of Bar Harbor at the request of Bar Harbor resident Earl Brechlin.
Brechlin is the former editor of the Islander, and the small vessel sanctuary idea originated in an editorial in this paper in 2017. In requesting the bill, he acted as a private citizen and not in his capacity as a spokesman for Friends of Acadia.
“These waters are used heavily year-round for commercial fishing and are thick with all kinds of recreational craft in the summer and fall,” Hubbell said in testimony before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee.
Noting that Great Harbor is not currently visited by cruise ships, he said, “The bill does not seek to prohibit any current activities within this zone, only to preserve the present characteristics and protect against the possibility of conflicts and distress that might occur if large ships might decide in the future to transit or anchor in the Great Harbor.”
Meghan Russo, the MDOT’s manager of legislative and constituent services, was among those who testified against the bill.
“The waters that this bill seeks to restrict access to are not within the control of the state of Maine,” she said. “We do not believe the state has any authority to impose restrictions on federal navigable waters. We also believe that passage of (this bill) could pose detrimental effects on tourism in Maine and the overall economic climate.”
Also opposing the Great Harbor bill was Chris Fogg, CEO of the Maine Tourism Association and former executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce.
“Any such prohibition on cruise ships is risking the economic health and diversity of our state,” he said. “Our fear is that this prohibition, if enacted, gets expanded and reaches into Bar Harbor or other areas of the state and damages our economic diversity.”
Fogg also told the Transportation Committee that the bill to ban cruise ships from Great Harbor “conflicts with federal law and opens up the state to legal challenges from foreign countries in which these ships are registered.”
Two ship pilots who said they are the only two who are licensed to pilot large vessels in the waters of Great Harbor testified against Hubbell’s bill. One was Prentice “Skip” Strong of Southwest Harbor. The other was David Gelinas of the Penobscot Bay & River Pilots Association based in Searsport.
“The threat posed to the state by this legislation is the precedent that would be set by allowing special interest groups to enact legislation banning a specific class or classes of vessels from navigating on federal waters,” Gelinas said.
“If passed, what prevents other groups from targeting oil barges or freighters or oil tankers? This bill is a template to attack Maine’s industrial working waterfront.”
Mark Klopp, president of Portland Pilots Inc., submitted written testimony in which he said the bill to ban cruise ships and other large commercial vessels from Great Harbor “impedes marine commerce, imposes unreasonable limits on the use of Maine waters and denies vessels safe refuge.”
“We believe all forms of marine commerce should be treated equally and not unjustly limited by geography or industry,” Klopp said.
Lawrence Nuesslein III of Bar Harbor, who said he has operated excursion vessels around MDI for more than 30 years, told the transportation committee, “Prohibiting larger passenger vessels from using these waters would cause economic harm not just to the companies and crew who operate these vessels, but it would also impact shipyards and any future short sea coastal shipping or along coast ferry routes.”
Submitting written testimony in opposition to the bill were representatives of the American Waterways Operators and the Cruise Lines International Association.
Among those testifying in support of the Great Harbor sanctuary bill was Brechlin, on whose behalf Hubbell introduced it. Brechlin said he is “not anti cruise ship” and has always supported cruise ship visits to Bar Harbor.
He described the Great Harbor bill as “a request from the people of Mount Desert Island to designate a small vessel sanctuary where they are free to conduct traditional maritime activities such as lobstering, teaching seamanship to our young people, operating small independent ferries and tours to offshore islands, and recreational boating.”
Story Litchfield, a sailor and member of the Mount Desert Harbor Committee, expressed support for the bill.
“For scores of years, children as young as 6 have been taught seamanship and sailing from the five yacht clubs in the Great Harbor,” she said. “Regularly scheduled races are held all summer, and lessons taught nearly every day. Remember, none of these sailing boats nor kayaks have motors to get out of the way of a large cruise ship bent on keeping a schedule.
“The danger presented to sailors and the huge financial damage to lobstermen’s gear is incalculable,” Litchfield said.
David Edson of Tremont, who described himself as “an active recreational boater,” wrote that “small cruise ships which ply the coast of MDI would exacerbate pressures on emergency respondents, interfere with commercial fisheries and dilute the recreational value for boaters who sail and motor in already high numbers.”
He said the Great Harbor bill is “a necessary predicate for…other restrictions that will preserve the safety, fisheries and recreational values surrounding all of MDI.”
Urna Semper of Southwest Harbor and Great Cranberry Island said in her written testimony in support of the bill, “Imagine a swath of hundreds of lobster pots providing the livelihood for local fishermen being destroyed and the catches scared away from the [cruise ship] traffic. Imagine the residents of Great Cranberry Island, some who have lived there their entire lives, looking out and having their view of Acadia obstructed by a floating shopping mall.”
The area that would be covered by the Great Harbor bill is the same as the already existing federally designated “no discharge zone,” which Brechlin said is delineated from Bass Harbor Head to Baker Island to Otter Cliff.
The Legislature’s Transportation Committee has not yet scheduled a work session and vote on the bill to designate that area as a small vessel sanctuary.