BAR HARBOR — The presence of anchored cruise ships does not have a negative impact on the water quality in Bar Harbor, according to the most recent study conducted by the Community Lab at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory (MDIBL).
Jane Disney of MDIBL presented the water quality study last week to town councilors. Later in the same meeting, councilors voted unanimously to allow Harbomaster Charlie Phippen to exceed the cruise ship passenger cap beyond his normal allotted leeway, on Sept 3.
Disney reported that her team tested water around 27 of the 180 cruise ship visits to Bar Harbor in 2018. They tested at both anchorage sites when ships were at anchor. As a control, they tested at the bell buoy in the harbor where there were no ships present.
“We had a very clean year,” she said.
Disney told councilors the water in the harbor has good transparency. “We can see down five meters” at test sites, she explained. The water is well-oxygenated, at 8.6 parts per million dissolved oxygen. “Anything over 6 is good,” she explained.
Testing close to the boats with the cooperation of cruise ship captains, her team could find no signs of gray water discharge, other freshwater discharge which would affect salinity or warm water discharge which would affect temperature (known as thermopollution).
Early on, the team tested for presence of heavy metals.
“We never came up with anything,” Disney said, “so we didn’t continue [heavy metal testing] due to expense.”
The team found a low (6 percent) concentration of phytoplankton, but a lot of that is the “good-guy phytoplankton” that scientists like to see in the water, Disney explained.
“Bar Harbor has excellent water quality,” Disney summarized. “It’s our greatest treasure. For the ships that we could get to and do the sampling, we think they’re holding their waste. This has to do not only with regulations, but with their relationship to Charlie [Phippen] and the town.”
Disney ended the presentation by recommending that the town “continue supporting water quality testing on some level,” but not necessarily focus on cruise ships. “Certainly we should hold all boats in the harbor to the same standard,” she said.
Later in the meeting, town councilors considered a request by Phippen to exceed his “discretionary allowance” of 5,700 passengers by 34 on Sept 3 of this year. The Royal Caribbean cruse line had requested availability to schedule their 3,114-passenger Adventure of the Seas on the same day the Queen Mary 2 is scheduled. The combined passenger capacity of the two ships is 5,734, exceeding Phippen’s discretionary allowance cap by 34.
“Thirty-four passengers isn’t a big deal,” said councilor Matthew Hochman, suggesting they approve the request.
“Why do we have caps if we’re going to exceed them?” asked councilor Judie Noonan. “I think we need to get more of a handle on this. I don’t like the idea of exceeding.”
Hochman said he would agree with Noonan’s concern “if this becomes a regular occurrence.”
Chairman Gary Friedmann clarified that the caps govern a ship’s passenger capacity. “This is not necessarily how many are coming on land,” he said before councilors voted unanimously to approve the request.
The town’s cruise ship caps have been debated before. In a split vote in Oct. 2016, town council denied a request by Phippen to exceed passenger caps for specific “trial dates” in 2018. In Dec. 2017, town councilors granted Phippen the leeway to exceed caps by up to 200 passengers throughout the season. The passenger limit, set in 2009, is 3,500 passengers per day in July and August. In the fall and spring months, the limit is 5,500 passengers per day.