guest column: Challenges ahead for Maine Marine Patrol

First published in Landings, June, 2017

Maine Marine Patrol Officers have had a busy and productive winter. Although it’s been a cold spring, now that the weather has warmed up officers will begin shifting from monitoring spring fisheries — elver and smelt — to lobster, shellfish and herring enforcement. The year ahead promises to have many challenges and again we will be asking fishermen to help us to meet these head-on.

Most of our small vessel fleet is back on the water in anticipation of boating tourists arriving this month. In the interim officers are busy with training, including advanced training on identifying and prosecuting cases involving removal of eggs from lobsters, water survival training, boating-while-intoxicated refresher courses, additional drug and addiction-related courses, and whale disentanglement training. Officers were recently trained in a new records management system designed to allow them to better record investigative work and document complaints.

Early this summer, Marine Patrol will be holding an Advanced Marine Patrol School for our five newest officers. Two new Marine Patrol Officers graduated from the Maine Police Academy in mid-May and will be going to the Stonington and Lubec Patrols. We look forward to getting these folks out into the field and starting them on what we hope will be a long career with the Marine Patrol. We also are in the middle of the recruitment and hiring process and hope to bring on two to three more officers in the coming months.

There have been a few high-profile marine resource cases this spring including a violation for 19 short lobsters Downeast and another for 47 short lobsters in the Midcoast area. In addition, a large-scale elver seizure took place in southern Maine, of 16 pounds of illegal elvers from out of state. In Division II, officers have documented a number of wet storage cases. In Division I, inshore patrols have documented untagged gear, no license and wet storage violations. Officers are also starting to hear trap-molesting complaints (‘Tis the season!).

Some fishermen may not realize that the Marine Patrol Bureau is often asked to wear many hats. For example, Marine Patrol has an experienced whale disentanglement team, an Honor Guard, a maritime security team which operates in combination with the State Police, a firearms team, a crisis management team, an awards committee, a dive team which works with the State Police and a hovercraft team which works with Fish and Game. Yes, we have a lot of talented officers; however, our focus has always been and will always be on the protection of Maine’s marine resources.

As I write this, Marine Patrol is engaged in a search in the Androscoggin River involving a missing boater. Searches like this as well as large-scale investigations take a great deal of Patrol’s time. We are finding that as fishing activity moves further offshore Patrol needs to invest far greater effort into what are often complex investigations involving sunken trawls, untagged gear, zone line violations and fishing over the limit. The resolution of these cases is extremely important because fishermen expect the Bureau to bring cheaters to justice. In order to make this happen Patrol needs two things. The first is trust and cooperation from the industry so that those abusing the laws can be identified; second is proper tools (offshore boats, technology) and training in order to make solid cases that will eventually lead to a conviction.

It was gratifying to see so many lobstermen attending the public hearing this spring concerning the very important yet contentious lobster enforcement bill. Although there were lobstermen on both sides of the aisle, it was clear that most recognized the important role that Marine Patrol plays and wanted to find ways to support our efforts. It was also clear that fishermen are passionate about issues that impact their livelihoods. Many fishermen gave up a day of hauling and a day’s pay to attend the public hearing.

So how do we deter cheating? It is my experience that large fines do not have the expected deterrent effect. Unfortunately, given the complexities of catching fishermen committing serious violations such as scrubbing, trap molesting and fishing sunken trawls (no buoys), enforcement is an uphill climb. Once Patrol is successful in putting a solid case together, the most effective method of providing both due process and removing violators from the water in a relatively timely fashion is the administrative suspension process. Without this process in place we would be in a very poor position to deal with serious lobster resource violations.

The administrative suspension process does have a deterrent effect. When a violator loses his or her license and the ability to make a living on the water, in some cases for more than a year, not only is that fisherman affected, but it may cause other fishermen who are cheating to reconsider their behavior.

The lobster industry has pushed for stricter enforcement and mandatory suspensions for certain violations. The enforcement bill is definitely a step in the right direction. There is no doubt that Marine Patrol, given our small numbers, needs the support of fishermen in order to be effective. Without statutory changes, we will continue to struggle to make an impact on those large-scale issues that threaten the industry.

On a related note, I have always felt that the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) sets high expectations for its employees and that it is fortunate to have such a hardworking and dedicated work force. When fishermen think about enforcement they generally envision uniformed officers. There are additional staff, however, within the department who play a big role in the overall success of the Bureau. The first is Deirdre Gilbert, director of marine policy. Deirdre has been in the game for quite some time and brings an unsurpassed level of knowledge and common sense to the legislative and rulemaking processes. Her work with Patrol has been exceptional. Another is Sarah Cotnoir, DMR’s resource management coordinator and liaison to the Lobster Advisory Council. Sarah has developed a strong working relationship with members of the lobster industry. She has been vital in keeping lobstermen updated and engaged in important issues affecting them. These two public servants deserve a great deal of credit for the work they perform.

In closing I want thank fishermen again for their ongoing support. Patrol will never take it for granted. As we continue to hire new officers and introduce them to their areas, please provide them with your support and allow them to earn your trust.