Hamilton Marine manager Matthew Cote unfurls a paper nautical chart for Penobscot Bay. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is starting to “sunset” the production of these paper charts in favor of electronic ones. ISLANDER PHOTO BY ETHAN GENTER

NOAA starts phaseout of paper nautical charts   

MOUNT DESERT ISLANDWhen Karl Brunner takes tourists out on his sail charters and lobster tours, he has a trusty paper nautical chart from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association that acts as a map to the ocean. 

It shows water depths, buoys, traffic lanes and navigation channels, and NOAA has been producing them to help guide mariners for nearly 200 years. 

But Brunner, the owner of Sail Acadia, largely keeps his chart around for the benefit of his customers, not to help him navigate the waters around Mount Desert Island. He normally turns to electronic navigation maps on his phone should he need guidance.  

“I use it more as a way to show my passengers where we are,” he said. 

With more and more sailors like Brunner and the use of the paper charts on the decline, NOAA has started this winter to “sunset” paper nautical charts this summer in favor of electronic charts. 

“Over the last decade or so we have seen the use of (electronic navigational charts) skyrocket,” said E.J. Van Den Ameele, the chief of NOAA’s Marine Chart Division.  

Paper charts have gone down by half and electronic charts have gone up sevenfold in that time period.  

While he likes having the paper charts on board in case of an emergency, Brunner has no problem with NOAA’s decision. 

“Day-to-day, we’ll use digital means,” he said. “It’s no comparison. It just works really well.”  

The first traditional paper chart to be canceled will be one of Lake Tahoe – a chart that has had slow sales and had little to no changes in about two decades – in August and NOAA plans to discontinue producing hard copies of the rest of its charts by January 2025.  

People started converting to electronic charts in the 1990s and NOAA chalks the change up to the growing need for more detailed nautical charts, including for massive ships entering ports and channels with the tightest of under keel clearances.  

The U.S. Coast Guard has allowed commercial ships on domestic voyages to use electronic charts in lieu of paper ones since 2016, and the International Maritime Organization and the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Seas require nearly all commercial ships to use electronic navigation charts on international voyages.  

Van Den Ameele said that electronic charts can now be updated continuously with new data. New updates happen weekly.   

“We get over 10,000 pieces of information every year to update charts,” he said.  

Not many local seamen seem to use paper charts anymore, said Tremont Harbormaster Justin Seavey. “Most everybody here nowadays uses electronic.” 

Seavey learned to use paper charts during his time with the Coast Guard. His office keeps them around as they’re good for looking at new mooring placements and search-and-rescue efforts, but the new technology is much more efficient.  

Nautical charts are tucked away looking for buyers at Hamilton Marine in Southwest Harbor. ISLANDER PHOTO BY ETHAN GENTER

People will still be able to get paper charts even after the sunset. Last week, NOAA launched a new program that allows mariners to make custom paper charts that they can print out on their own. People looking for a larger format can order them via a print-on-demand chart agent.   

When Maine paper charts will be on the chopping block isn’t clear. NOAA doesn’t have a set schedule for the discontinuance of other paper charts, but any changes will come with a six-month notification process, Van Den Ameele said.  

There are still some people who use them and many boaters do like to have them in case of emergency, Van Den Ameele added.  

Hamilton Marine in Southwest Harbor is stocked with charts and sales associate Jeremiah Robinson said the shop still sells plenty to sailboaters on up to commercial fishermen.  

“It’s just to have that little extra backup,” he said. 

Ethan Genter

Ethan Genter

Former reporter for the Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander, Ethan covered maritime news and the town of Bar Harbor.

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