AUGUSTA, Maine — With a stroke of the governor’s pen, David Rice hopes no other fisherman will have to experience what he went through when he built a pier off his property in South Bristol.
Days after it was approved by the Legislature, Gov. Paul LePage on March 31 signed into law a bill that bars the Maine Department of Environmental Protection from regulating the storage of fishing gear on commercial fishing piers.
For more than three years, Rice argued with state officials over how he could use the 108-foot pier, which he built on the Damariscotta River to support his commercial fishing operation.
Rice, who first applied in 2007 for a permit to construct the pier in Clark’s Cove, was told that he could build it but that he would not be allowed to store his fishing gear on it during the winter when he wasn’t fishing. The reason? Rice’s wire mesh traps would cast a shadow, state officials said, which would have an adverse impact on seaweed next to the dock trying to absorb the sunlight.
“Ridiculous,” Rice said Monday about the state’s reasoning. “It shouldn’t have ever happened.”
Rice, 66, said the Maine Department of Marine Resources initially agreed with the DEP about the ban on storing traps on the pier, but that DMR later changed its position. DEP’s position on the stacked traps did not change, however, until after Rice filed an appeal with the Board of Environmental Protection. What’s the sense of building a commercial fishing pier if you can’t store fishing gear on it, he argued.
In January, after soliciting further information on the issue, BEP gave Rice the formal green light to stacks traps on the pier.
“These studies state that rockweed can survive long periods in the dark,” the board indicated in its order, according to the minutes of its Jan. 6 meeting. “Further, the studies state that growth of rockweed is zero to negligible during the winter months; therefore, shading effects from storage of traps would not affect the rockweed surrounding the permitted pier.”
Samantha Depoy-Warren, spokeswoman for DEP, said Tuesday that, with the recent change in gubernatorial administrations and in the department’s leadership, she could not explain how DEP arrived at its 2007 decision to oppose the storage of traps on Rice’s pier.
Depoy-Warren said that, upon further review, DEP concluded that stacking traps on the pier in winter would not have an adverse impact on nearby seaweed growth. At the bill’s public hearing in February, she said, DEP officials spoke in favor of the bill, LD 49.
“Sometimes it takes a fresh set of eyes,” Depoy-Warren said. “[The department’s opposition] just didn’t hold water because there already would be shading from the dock itself.”
Rice, who fishes up to 600 traps, said the whole point of building the pier was to give him a place where he conveniently could store his traps when they weren’t in the water. He said he believes that the argument about the traps’ shadow having an adverse impact on seaweed originated from some seasonal neighbors who never wanted him to build the pier in the first place.
“If I hadn’t stuck with this and fought for this, [DEP] would have stuck it on every permit,” Rice said of the trap-stacking prohibition. “It’s crazy. Some of these laws aren’t for the working man.”
State Rep. Jonathan McKane of Newcastle said Tuesday that despite Rice’s ultimate victory, and despite the appointment of new DMR and DEP commissioners by LePage since his election last fall, the law that gave DEP jurisdiction over whether traps may be stored on docks remained on the books. He said that is why he sponsored the bill.
“I thought it was a joke at first,” McKane said of the shade-on-seaweed argument.
McKane said lobstermen have stacked traps on piers up and down the coast for decades or longer. Shadows of all sorts fall on coastal waters — from trees, rocks, docks and buildings — and there has been no evidence that the presence of seaweed in Maine’s coastal waters has been affected significantly by those shadows, he said.
“It has very little impact,” he said. “[The DEP trap-stacking prohibition] is the kind of overstretching regulation that we need to curb.”
LePage’s office released a prepared statement Monday that indicated the bill was supported unanimously by the Legislature’s Environmental and Natural Resources Committee. LePage said in the release that the law helps to fix what is wrong with Maine’s regulatory system.
“This is just one example of the good work our legislators are doing to remove unnecessary regulation which will ease the burden on working families,” LePage said in the release.
Maine lobster fishing associations were united in their support for Rice and for LD 49.
Bar Harbor resident Jim Dow, first vice president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said Tuesday that he has never heard of any other fisherman facing the sort of issue Rice had to deal with.
“It’s obviously an integral part of fishing,” Dow said of storing gear on piers. “Hopefully, it was an isolated incident.”
Clive Farrin, president of the Down East Lobstermen’s Association, said Monday that the Legislature and LePage did the right thing. Farrin, who fishes out of Boothbay Harbor, said Maine has thousands of miles of saltwater coastline, but only a few dozen miles are being used to provide working waterfront access to fishermen.
“‘You can’t build your house because it will shade the dandelions,’” Farrin said, comparing the shade-on-seaweed argument to a home construction project scenario. “Give me a break.”
An earlier version of this story inaccurately reflected how the Department of Environmental Protection’s stance on the issue changed. The story said that DEP didn’t changed its position, but should have said DEP reversed its opposition to allowing traps to be stacked on the pier before the issue ultimately was decided by the Board of Environmental Protection.