guest column: Challenges ahead for Maine Marine Patrol

First published in Landings, May, 2017

As we leave winter behind, officers in the Maine Marine Patrol are shifting gear from winter fisheries to spring activity — primarily that means elvers from late March through May. Officers find themselves working many nights and often adjusting their sleeping habits to sleep during the day.

Col. Cornish is the chief
of Maine’s Marine Patrol
Bureau. DMR photo

With the arrival of good weather, officers will be getting the department’s small vessel fleet active in order to monitor inshore activity such as lobstering and recreational fishing and boating. Marine Patrol also uses the spring months — between elver season and the busy summer lobster season — to accomplish much of the Bureau’s yearly training. This year officers will be learning a new record management system along with many other skills such as lobster scrubbing identification, whale disentanglement, boating-while-under-the-influence refresher class, and advanced drug recognition training. The Bureau is also planning a spring Advanced Marine Patrol School for new hires. Two new officers will be graduating from the Academy in mid-May. They will be going to the Advanced School for four weeks and then moving directly into the field. The Bureau is currently in the process of hiring two to three additional officers.

Challenges ahead:
Just as the fishing industry continues to meet challenges so too does the Marine Patrol. In my opinion there are three large-scale challenges that face the Bureau that have been and continue to be relevant.

The first is Patrol’s ability to detect lobster violations involving sunken trawls (lobster traps set in an effort to avoid detection generally for the purpose of fishing over the limit). It is very challenging for Patrol to detect trawls that are not marked by buoys. Lobstermen, on the other hand, are able to find them quite easily. Nevertheless, through good information and long investigations, Patrol Officers have had some success in dealing with these violations. It is clear, however, that without strong support from the lobster industry and the Legislature, our officers will not be effective in the long-term in slowing down this illegal trend. Patrol needs the ability to place trackers on vessels when probable cause of a violation exists in order to successfully pursue these types of cases.

The second challenge deals with the Bureau’s aging fleet of vessels. We spend a large portion of our budget maintaining the current fleet. As the vessels age, the cost of upkeep mounts. Lobstermen know that the cost to replace a 40’ to 50’ vessel is exorbitant. Marine Patrol is doing what it can to keep these costs at a minimum by seeking out grant funding as well as looking at alternatives to building new vessels. At the end of the day, however, there are no clear answers.

The third challenge involves the drug addiction epidemic that exists in the fishing industry as it does in the community at large. We have seen several overdoses within the fishing fleet and know that addiction plays a role in at least some of the high profile conservation violations we have detected. This challenge is not a simple one. Marine Patrol is dealing with addictions that entice people to commit acts that they normally would not. The Bureau will continue to look at options to train officers to recognize drug abuse and at the potential for drug testing within the industry. There are no easy answers when it comes to this crisis.

Lastly, I want to emphasize that each lobsterman should reach out and work with your local Marine Patrol Officer before issues arise. Officers cannot be successful without forming a working relationship with fishermen. It has always been clear to me that officers with trusted working relationships within their areas are by far the most successful when it comes to making solid violation cases.

We need you as much as you need us. We can only be successful by working together.