VINALHAVEN, Maine — The discovery of old munitions on Seal Island has prompted the Coast Guard to ban all activity in the waters immediately surrounding it.
The island, near Matinicus, Vinalhaven and Isle au Haut, had been used as a military practice area in the World War II era but has lain dormant since. Despite the passage of years, the new safety zone extends into water up to 60 feet deep around the island, effectively putting important lobster fishing territory off-limits.
“To have something like this happen 65 years after they bombed it and now they’re going to close it is crazy,” a local lobster fisherman who declined to be identified said Monday. “We’ve had 65 years of bomb-free fishing and nothing’s happened.”
He said about 30 Vinalhaven fishermen set traps around Seal Island and that for the government “to close 60 feet in, I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
The man said his family had been fishing the bottom around Seal Island for generations and never detected any munitions. Sea urchin divers harvest the waters around the island and never reported discovering any bombs. Storms powerful enough to drive huge boulders onto the shore have buffeted the island for decades and never rolled up any explosives, he said.
“I didn’t know anything about it until the Coast Guard boarded me last week” the man said. “I thought they were joking. They weren’t.”
The emergency interim rule went into effect last Tuesday, a decision that led U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, to ask for officials to brief her on the sudden establishment of the permanent zone.
“The island hasn’t been used for target practice for years and has been fished for decades since then,” Pingree said Monday. “Obviously, safety is an important concern but it’s hard to understand what has suddenly changed that prompted the closure of this area.”
The rule was issued without advance notification or any opportunity for a public comment, Pingree said.
The rule revealed that Seal Island was used as an aerial bombing and target range and that officials recently had discovered explosives connected with those old target practices.
Although the use of the island as a bombing and target range ended decades ago, “recent exploration of the island and the surrounding waters led to the discovery of various munitions and explosives of concern that present safety hazards to those who may come in contact with them,” the rule stated.
Some of the munitions were located on the island itself as well as in the shallow waters immediately surrounding it.
“This regulation will establish a fixed safety zone around the perimeter of the affected portions of Seal Island out to the 60 foot depth curve so as to ensure mariners do not come into close proximity with munitions and explosives of concern (MEC) near Seal Island. This safety zone is necessary to protect vessels and persons from the hazards associated with MEC,” the rule states.
Pingree said, “No one knows those waters better than the people that fish them every day. At the very least the Coast Guard should be talking to them before making decisions like this.”
Clayton Philbrook, a Matinicus lobsterman, said fishermen have known about the island’s history for years. Philbrook recalled a fire breaking out on Seal Island years ago where “there were shells popping off all over the place. The Coast Guard and Outward Bound were out there getting people off of there. It’s nice to hear the Coast Guard has discovered bombs out there now.”
Coast Guard officials are expected to meet with Pingree in her Washington office next week.
“I’ve asked the Coast Guard to come to my office and explain this decision to me,” Pingree said. “I’d like to get some answers.”
The emergency interim rule requires that comments and related material reach the Coast Guard on or before Dec. 7. It was unclear Monday when final action on the rule would be taken. Requests for public meetings must be received by the Coast Guard on or before Sept. 30.