The tracks of cruise ships and other large vessels shown from AIS data in the area around Mount Desert Rock. When approaching Bar Harbor from the south, captains are now asked to follow a recommended route that brings the boats to the edge of the three-mile radius around Mount Desert Rock before making the turn north. IMAGE COURTESY OF SKIP STRONG

Fishermen, harbor pilots, cruise industry work to minimize gear loss from ships

BAR HARBOR — There’s a lot going on in the few square miles of ocean around Mount Desert Rock, the offshore island about 20 miles south of the entrance to Frenchman Bay.

College of the Atlantic operates a research station there. The rocky ocean bottom near the island is a prime spot for lobsters and has become more and more popular in recent years.

There is shipping traffic in the area, tankers going to and from Searsport, Portland and Portsmouth, according to harbor pilot Skip Strong of the Penobscot Bay Pilots.

And there are cruise ships. This year, 197 ship visits to Bar Harbor are scheduled, the bulk of them in September and October.

On their way into Frenchman Bay and Bar Harbor, the ships pass near Mount Desert Rock. Until recently, the recommended channel for large ships entering Frenchman Bay started about five miles north of Mount Desert Rock.

But enough fishermen were losing money and equipment when buoy lines were cut by a passing ship (or an underwater stabilizer sticking out from the side of a ship, or an underwater tow wire between a tug and barge), that they got to talking.

The conversation had some added urgency beginning in 2018, when the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) changed the rules for gear configurations in the area. Many fishermen used to use strings, or trawls, of 15 traps with a surface buoy at either end, in the area. Now, with more fishermen working in the same area, a 5-trap maximum is in effect. That means if a buoy line is cut, the whole trawl is lost.

What if the recommended channel were extended a bit, closer to Mount Desert Rock to include the area where the ships make the turn?

“It would be a win-win,” Islesford lobsterman Steve Philbrook said at a 2018 lobster management meeting.

“As pilots we didn’t have a lot of stuff to say about this,” Strong said, “because it’s well before we get on board. But as the guys who are up on the bridge with the captains, we said we’d be happy to relay information and explain why we’re trying to do this.

“But the fishermen and CLIA really need to work out the details,” he continued, “what it is fishermen want and what the ships can deal with.”

A few months later, DMR helped arrange a meeting at Ellsworth City Hall between lobstermen and Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), an industry group whose members include the lines that visit Bar Harbor.

“Fishing patterns had changed from when the existing lanes were originally established, raising the need for the update,” said Brian Salerno, CLIA senior vice president for maritime policy.

“CLIA arranged for one of the cruise ship masters, a captain from Holland America, to participate in the meeting to provide the big ship perspective.”

The group at the meeting agreed on the proposal to extend the recommended channel several more miles out. In April 2019, the pilots explained the change at the Maine and New Hampshire Port Safety Forum. That group also supported the idea, Salerno said.

From there it was a matter of working through the Coast Guard and the NOAA Office of Coast Survey, which is in charge of nautical charts. That took a little while, but the 10-mile extension of the approach to the existing shipping channel has now been added to the charts.

The new route is “really extending out into open navigation waters,” Strong noted. “That’s why this is called a recommended route, not a mandatory route like a traffic separation scheme would be.”

He said it’s a give-and-take, like a lot of things that involve sharing space.

The pilots strongly encourage the captains they work with to honor the recommended channel.

“And when we say follow it, we mean the center of the route. Not 100 meters off.”

Later in the approach to Frenchman Bay, once the pilots are on board, Strong said, “if we miss the turn by more than 20-30 meters, we’re into the (lobster) gear.”

It’s some tricky diplomacy.

There will always be some ships that aren’t in the center of the route, he said, for traffic or any number of reasons.

“They’re not doing anything unsafe, but they might not be exactly where we’re trying to herd them into.

“By the same measure there are probably a very small percentage of fishermen who are saying, ‘There’s no gear here, I’m gonna set my gear here.’

“Over time,” and on both sides, he hopes, “compliance gets better.”

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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