Fishermen, environmental activists urge state officials to revisit dredging plansDepartment of Marine Resources hearing attracts more than 100 people
SEARSPORT — Fishermen and activists warned officials from the Department of Marine Resources June 9 that a "calamity of turbidity," seven years' bad catch and other hazards await the fishing industry if a major dredging at Mack Point marine terminal goes ahead as planned.
More than 100 people came to the public meeting at Searsport District High School. Many were dressed in red — the color of boiled lobsters and, on this night, solidarity among local interests opposed to a plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deepen and widen the navigation channel into the port.
Dredging is scheduled to take place between November 2015 and March 2016.
The purpose, according to the Army Corps, is to accommodate larger cargo ships at Mack Point, which is one of three deep-water ports in the state.
Opponents of the plan, which would entail dredging 900,000 cubic yards of material from the bay floor and dumping it at a site northwest of Islesboro, fear the dredging will disperse a legacy of toxic materials left over from decades of heavy industry around Penobscot Bay.
Tuesday night, several speakers with marine biology credentials added another concern — that disturbing the dredge area and disposal site could release significant amounts of methane gas.
Joseph Kelley, a professor of marine biology at the University of Maine who has worked extensively on mapping the seafloor of the Gulf of Maine, said the methane would have come from organic matter that grew in marshes 10,000 to 12,000 years ago when the sea level was lower than it is today. That material would have been covered in mud when sea levels rose and undergone a gradual anaerobic decomposition, creating methane gas in the process, he said.
Kelley said the "pockmarks" at the disposal site, which appear as craters on maps of the seafloor, looked too steep to exist in an active sedimentary environment.
This opinion was echoed by David Laing, a retired geologist who attributed the shape to methane and water compounds called clathrates.
"In other words, something's coming out of those pits on a fairly regular basis to maintain that topographic form," he said. Laing said clathrates hold their form but could break down and release methane if disturbed by disposal dredge spoils.
This combined with the unknown effects of currents on the disposed sediment could lead to what Kim Ervin Tucker, an attorney for several fishermen's associations and environmental and small business advocacy groups, would later call a "calamity of turbidity" that could devastate fishing in the area.
That prospect was too risky for some fishermen who have made their living selling healthy crustaceans and shellfish.
David Black, a Belfast lobsterman, said lobster landings have doubled in the past four years, largely as a result of careful management of the fishery by lobstermen themselves. The dredging project threatens to undo that work, he said.
Matt Samuels, who works out of Rockport, said landings fell off for two to three years in the area where he fishes after dredging spoils from Belfast Harbor were dumped nearby.
Fishermen and environmental watchdogs have generally supported "maintenance dredging," which would remove drifts and return the channel to its most recent dredged depth.
On Tuesday, there was talk about a third idea proposed in a report by Dawson & Associates. Islesboro Islands Trust commissioned the study from the Washington, D.C.-based firm, which specializes in regulatory and environmental issues relating to federal waters.
The so-called "Dawson alternative" would entail dredging around the piers at the cargo terminal to the depth proposed by the Army Corps and limiting the dredging in the navigation channel to basic maintenance. The material would be brought upland instead of being dumped elsewhere in the bay.
According to the report, this combination would fulfill most of the goals of the original proposal with much less dredging, and as a result, fewer environmental risks.
"I think we'd all get along quite well that way," said Wayne Canning, a longtime Penobscot Bay lobsterman.
Canning said if the larger dredging project went wrong and the catch was depleted or contaminated, local fishermen could be out of work for years.
"This whole thing is high risk for a guy on my end," he said.
Julie Eaton, a lobsterman from Deer Isle, echoed concerns that the dredging could wipe out some of the best lobster fishing in the state and challenged the assertion by dredging supporters that large boats can't navigate the channel at low tide today. Eaton said she has traps in a shoal area that can't be reached by boat at low tide and has done just fine.
"I organize my day so I get there at high tide," she said, drawing a round of laughter from the crowd. "And I'm just a little fisherman. The captains of these big tankers should be able to do the same thing."
Steven Tanguay, co-owner of Searsport Shores campground, talked about town efforts to restore the clam flats in Long Cove after decades of pre-Clean Water Act pollution, a jet fuel spill in the '70s and construction of the Sears Island Causeway, which environmental advocates blame for disrupting aspects of the marine ecosystem. The recovery has been slow, he said, but last year the town sold 100 recreational clamming permits.
Tony Kulik of Belfast said he was told "off the record" that the dredging was "a done deal" among other government agencies, leaving DMR as the last hope for opponents.
"Somebody in government has got to stand up for the fishermen," he said.
Comments from Tuesday night's meeting will be considered in a recommendation by the DMR commissioner to the Department of Environmental Protection.
Denis Nault, a biologist and environmental review coordinator with DMR who listened to testimony on Tuesday, said the agency would compare this project with others to the extent possible — a dredging in Portland, for example, had removed a similar amount of material but was different in that it was offshore — and consider any relevant scientific studies.
"I understand people have a feeling for these things," he said. "But I have to look at science and data."