Maine’s Marine Patrol is unique among law enforcers.
- By: Ken Textor
The skiff is more than a mile away, yet Rob Beal still notices something odd about it. He promptly throttles down his patrol boat, picks up his binoculars, and looks southeast toward Bustin’s Island, just outside of Freeport Harbor in Casco Bay. I follow his gaze and squint at the small, green aluminum skiff with two men aboard.
“They couldn’t be hauling traps in that thing, could they?” I ask as Beal, a four-year veteran of the Maine Marine Patrol, studies the shabby, distant boat’s activities.
“Can’t tell,” Beal replies as he sets his binoculars back on the console. Putting his patrol boat back in gear, he adds, “But I think we’ll watch them for a little while.” He then sets a course decidedly away from the green skiff, which might have seemed odd to me earlier in the day. But having spent most of a sunny day with Beal on patrol in central Casco Bay, I know the “watching” we are about to undertake involves a lot more than one might ordinarily expect.
In fact, keeping an eye on Maine’s marine resources is a complex job that the state has been grappling with for more the 150 years. And although the antecedents of today’s fifty-officer-strong Maine Marine Patrol can be traced as far back as the 1840s, the problems faced then, and now, are strikingly familiar.
“We’re involved in conservation law enforcement, which is different from regular law enforcement,” says Colonel Joe Fessenden, a thirty-four-year veteran of the Marine Patrol and currently its top officer, reporting directly to the commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, George Lapointe. “We’re generally not adversarial. We’re not going in there to be tough and make arrests. We prefer to work closely with the industry and communities, to get compliance with the laws — not always ending up in court.”
And the laws which Fessenden, Beal, and the other Marine Patrol officers are trying to gain compliance with are voluminous. There are some sixty-five different licenses issued by the state for various marine-related harvests, ranging from lobsters (thirteen different licenses) to seaweed (four different licenses). Additional licensing applies to species as diverse as clams, shrimp, baby eels, marine worms, and sea cucumbers, among many others.
Each species, of course, has a dozen or more laws governing how, when, where, and how much of the potential harvest may be taken. Then there are a couple of dozen laws governing boat safety equipment and practices, all of which apply to both the commercial and recreational boats the Marine Patrol must keep an eye on. Just keeping all the laws and licenses straight would be challenging enough for a high-priced lawyer, let alone a Marine Patrol officer making between $34,000 and $45,000 per year.
Still, Marine Patrol officers help regulate essentially all species taken in Maine’s coastal waters. And by far, the most lucrative marine market in Maine has been, and continues to be, lobsters, with annual harvests in recent years contributing from around $250 million to $300 million to the local economy.
So it was no surprise that Beal and I spent the lion’s share of our day concentrating on more than a dozen random inspections of boats fishing for lobsters in the waters immediately east and west of Harpswell Neck. Beal’s central Casco Bay patrol area is one of six sections of the coast that twelve Marine Patrol officers cover while on duty on any given day — during all hours of the day and night, seven days per week, just about every day of the year.
“We’re actually encouraged to make our own hours and keep them a little unpredictable,” Beal says as he steers his twenty-one-foot Boston Whaler patrol boat into a group of pleasure boats moored a mile or so southwest of the green skiff. Lurking and watching amid moored recreational boats is a common ploy used by Marine Patrol officers, Beal explains. “We blend right in and we tend to go unnoticed,” the thirty-one-year-old former lobster fisherman notes as he picks up his binoculars to again study the green aluminum skiff, which does seem to be moving from one poorly marked lobster trap buoy to another.
Like many other patrol officers, Beal himself blends in for more reasons than just operating an off-the-shelf, common recreational boat as a patrol boat. As Fessenden explains to me later, the Marine Patrol prefers to hire officers with some sort of background in one of Maine’s many fisheries. “But we still do hire some like me,” Fessenden smiles, noting that his upbringing was on a farm near Bangor, well away from the heady smell of saltwater.
Beal, however, is originally from Southwest Harbor, where he began fishing for lobsters at the tender age of seven. Today, youngsters around the age of ten are frequently seen working with fathers or uncles in boats on Casco Bay. And it is common enough to find a teenager alone in a skiff, hauling a hundred or more traps as he begins a working life on the water. Beal himself put in twenty years in the lobster fishery, working his way up from sternman to boat owner before, at age twenty-seven, he decided to join the Marine Patrol.
“I wanted to try something a little different, and this seemed like just the right mix,” Beal explains. Like Fessenden, Beal sees his job as helping preserve Maine’s valuable marine resources, which he admits can occasionally turn into serious law enforcement problems, too. Indeed, last summer, lobstering turned violent on Matinicus Island, where one fisherman was shot by another and seriously wounded, even as Marine Patrol officers were on the island investigating fishing conflicts. And just weeks later at Owl’s Head, three lobsterboats were sabotaged and sunk, possibly due to lobstermen warring over alleged territorial rights. Marine Patrol officers, in addition to state and local police, are investigating both incidents.
There are, of course, no official exclusive rights to fishing in the waters around Maine’s coastal towns. But all too frequently, fishermen from one community see fishermen from another encroaching on their perceived territory and take action. And just about everywhere, newcomers to any fishing grounds are greeted with what the Marine Patrol officers euphemistically call “trap molesting,” which seems like a possibility with our green skiff in Casco Bay.
Tampering with lobster traps can take many forms, but the most common approach is deliberately cutting off the colorful buoys that mark the trap’s location. Each buoy may mark anywhere from one to eight traps, each of which cost between seventy-five and a hundred dollars. And since the buoys are required by law to be marked with a lobsterman’s specific colors, it’s easy enough to choose a foggy day to cut a few of a competitor’s buoys and begin to put someone out of business.
In fact, last summer Marine Patrol officers in the Friendship area conducted three days of surveillance before they finally caught a lobsterman who had cut twenty-two traps. The man arrested was carrying out his work in a skiff that looked very much like the skiff Beal and I are watching in Casco Bay. “Time to go see what they’re up to,” Beal finally says as he puts the 225-horse Evinrude in gear and opens it up. At a speed of about thirty knots, we make a bumpy beeline to the green skiff, which is clearly not rigged to haul lobsters commercially.
Even at thirty knots, though, the two men in the skiff have enough time to see our approach and guess who it is. “Something just went over the starboard side,” I say as we are still about a quarter mile away. The man in the aft end of the skiff had reached into a large plastic bucket, pulled out something nearly black in color, and dumped it (or them) over the side as he eyed our approach. “Probably shorts,” Beal says as we come up to the cluttered skiff and throttle down.
“Shorts” are perhaps the most common violation of Maine’s lobstering laws. A legal lobster must be at least 3.25 inches when measured from the extreme rear of the lobster’s eye socket to the end of the main body shell, or carapace. To make the measurement, a special brass gauge that looks something like the letter “C” is used along a line parallel to the centerline of the carapace.
The man in the green skiff with a recreational lobstering license, however, has another approach.
“This one’s a little short,” Beal says quietly as he sorts and measures the three lobsters remaining in the green skiff’s bucket.
“It is?” exclaims Mr. Short in a tone of great surprise. “It shouldn’t be. I measured it and it was big enough.”
“Show me how you measured it,” Beal says patiently. Mr. Short grabs his gauge and puts one end in the eye socket and touches the other end to the side of the carapace, where it just exactly spans the distance for 3.25 inches. Mr. Short looks at Beal, smiles, and says, hopefully, “See? It’s legal.”
“Well, that’s not how you measure a lobster,” Beal explains, taking out his own gauge and showing Mr. Short how to measure along a line parallel to the centerline of the carapace, not at a slight angle from the eye to the middle of the side of the carapace. The seemingly innocuous deviation from parallel to angled makes an otherwise illegal lobster “legal.”
“But that’s how I’ve always measured a lobster,” Mr. Short responds. “My father fished for lobsters for twenty years and that’s how he taught me to measure. Honest, I wouldn’t lie to you.”
Nevertheless, Beal unceremoniously releases the undersized crustacean back into the waters of Casco Bay, finishes up a safety inspection of the skiff (there were some minor violations), and gives Mr. Short a written warning on both safety and lobster measuring infractions.
“To try to get a fine on one short wouldn’t have worked,” Beal explains as we head away from the green skiff. Technically, illegal lobsters can bring a fine between twenty-five and fifty dollars for each short, plus a possible loss of your lobstering license if you’re caught with enough shorts. Although Beal and I were pretty certain Mr. Short had dropped several more illegal lobsters over the side as we approached, the Marine Patrol officer had no solid proof. But, he adds, “This is where working with the community will likely be a big help.”
As Beal’s boss Fessenden later explains, honest lobstermen don’t particularly like dishonest lobstermen. So it usually doesn’t take long for word to get around that someone’s taking short lobsters, molesting traps, or otherwise trying to gain an unfair advantage over competing lobstermen.
After a single day of patrolling central Casco Bay, it was clear to me that Beal had indeed become part of the honest lobstering community in his four years with the Marine Patrol, two of them in these local waters. It was surprising how many lobstermen chatted amiably with him while we conducted safety and lobster measuring inspections.
Conversely, Beal chatted knowledgeably with the lobstermen about their children going to school in the coming weeks, where the best prices for lobsters were being paid, and how the Red Sox could improve their lineup and pitching rotation.
Even so, all the inspections were not completely friendly affairs. Several lobstermen were given verbal warnings due to safety violations. Signal flares that were out of date were the most common offense. Traps with poorly constructed escape vents for juvenile lobsters, improperly tagged traps, and similar minor violations all generated a mild verbal warning, which Beal recorded in a notebook for future reference.
In addition to his interactions with the on-water lobstering community, Beal’s work takes him to various shoreside operations. Like other Marine Patrol officers, inspections can take place on land at lobster wholesaling operations, truck weigh stations, and even restaurants reported to be serving up illegal shorts, females, or oversized lobsters. (The maximum carapace measurement is five inches.)
As we watch the green skiff head for shore with the two lobsters Mr. Short was legally permitted to keep, I have no doubt about Beal’s assessment of the encounter. “We didn’t catch him with many shorts this time, but he’ll do it again,” Beal says, acknowledging Mr. Short has had run-ins with Marine Patrol officers in the past. “And I’ll get him when he does.”
(Photo Illustration: ©IStockPhoto.com. Lobster: Braclark. Handcuffs: LUGO.)