VINALHAVEN, Maine — The Coast Guard has rescinded its ban on lobster fishing in waters around Seal Island.
Department of Marine Resources Deputy Commissioner David Etnier said Wednesday that the recently imposed safety zone would not be enforced at least until the December period of public comment was concluded.
“They said they would not enforce the fisherman’s component until the end of the public comment period,” Etnier said. “They also will be making changes to the notice on their charts that already mark the danger zone to make people aware of unexploded ordnance.”
The Coast Guard enacted the safety zone last week after large amounts of munitions were found on the island and in the waters around it. Seal Island is located near Matinicus, Vinalhaven and Isle au Haut. The island was used for bombing practice during World War II, and ordnance has remained there since then.
The new safety zone extended to waters up to 60 feet deep around the island, effectively putting the lobster fishery off-limits.
Approximately 35 Vinalhaven fishermen set traps on the bottom around Seal Island.
Etnier said the discovery of “several hundred” bombs or shells in waters around the island was reported to the Department of Environmental Protection by sea urchin divers earlier this year. The DEP informed the federal agencies, and the special rule was established as a result of that information.
“That was the impetus for the change of events we all are familiar with today,” Etnier said.
The potential loss of the Vinalhaven fishery prompted 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, to question the Coast Guard’s actions. Pingree discussed the matter with the agency Tuesday night and officials informed her that in light of an unvalidated level of risk to the mariners and a larger than expected economic impact on local fishermen, they had withdrawn the rule.
“I’m pleased that the Coast Guard responded quickly to our questions about their decision to place a safety zone around Seal Island,” Pingree said Wednesday. “Safety is everyone’s top concern but the sudden closing of the waters around Seal Island just didn’t make sense to me.”
Pingree’s daughter, Maine House Speaker Hannah Pingree, whose district represents many of the state’s islands, also worked with the Department of Marine Resources and Coast Guard officials to help resolve the situation quickly.
“I appreciate the Coast Guard’s cooperation and I look forward to working with them and state officials to better assess any potential dangers in the area and to develop plans for any necessary cleanup,” speaker Pingree said. “Obviously, safety should remain everyone’s top priority, and if there is debris that needs to be removed I’ll work with federal and local officials to make sure that happens.”
Etnier said the Coast Guard also agreed to hold a public hearing on Vinalhaven as part of the public comment period. He said that under the new proposal, boats would be able to transit the area but anchoring off Seal Island would be banned. He said the DMR planned to ask the agency to consider a mitigation plan for the island and expected the state and federal government to work together on the matter.
“It is a real issue. People should not be scoffing about shells around the island,” Etnier said. “I know quite a brush fire has been stirred by this and I know there is some realization on the Coast Guard side that they should have informed the state on this. I think it’s going to go away real soon and people can go back to earning their livelihoods.”