LUBEC, Maine — Since 2004, 15 men have lost their lives in the sea around Washington County and Charlotte County, New Brunswick — seven in just the last 13 months.
“It is unbelievable what is happening here. It is tragic and unprecedented,” said Col. Joseph E. Fessenden of the Maine Department of Marine Resources to a group of three dozen Cobscook Bay fishermen Tuesday night. “I have been doing this for 35 years, and I have never seen anything like this. Something is going wrong up here.”
A two-hour discussion between fishermen, marine experts, DMR and U.S. Coast Guard officials touched on plenty of possible reasons for the tragedies: incorrect gear, failure to wear life vests, weather, inexperience.
But the bottom line, the scallop and urchin draggers agreed, is that to fish in Cobscook Bay, with its terrific currents and astronomical tides, is to fish in one of the most dangerous bodies of water in the U.S.
“Fishing a 12-foot tide is one thing,” ship pilot Robert Peacock of Lubec said. “Fishing in a 20-foot tide is a whole other world.”
Much of the discussion centered on using low-towing gear. Many of the boats that sank were using high-towing gear, explained Peacock, who knew many of the victims.
Kevin Plowman, a commercial fishing vessel safety examiner with the U.S. Coast Guard, presented a slide show that illustrated the differences between high-towing — where the A-frame used to haul a dragger is 12 feet off the vessel’s deck — and low-towing, where the A-frame tows from just two feet off the deck.
He showed that at 5 degrees off the centerline, a fishing vessel towing high will have less than 1 foot of “free board,” or the space between the water’s surface and the deck of the boat.
That same vessel fishing low, at 5 degrees off centerline, will have 2½ feet of “free board.”
“This will give you a lot more time to handle what’s happening if you get snagged up,” Plowman said.
“I hate requirements,” one fisherman commented, “but [towing low] is really the way to go.”
Several fishermen questioned the cost of converting from high-towing gear to low-towing, which could be about $2,500.
“You can’t let economics drive you from doing this if it will save your life,” Plowman said.
Some of the fishermen were concerned that more and more regulations cost them more and more money, while DMR continues to cut back the number of days they are allowed to fish.
Urchin draggers are now limited to 45 days, and if the weather is poor, they said, they are taking chances because they must go out.
Fessenden said the Scallop Advisory and Urchin Advisory Councils are looking into a tag system that would allow fishermen to stay in port when weather is dangerous.
Peacock also pointed out that charts that fishermen use to navigate Cobscook Bay were created in 1834 — the oldest sea bottom survey in the country.
“That is just wrong,” he said.
Jessamine Logan, representing U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, said Collins has requested a new bottom survey from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Mandating the use of personal life jackets or inflatable vests and installing a buddy system were also discussed. The fishermen said buddy systems wouldn’t work because fishermen like to keep their productive fishing grounds secret. They also complained that the inflatable vests bunch up around their neck when worn under their rubber overalls.
The fishermen objected to closing part of Cobscook Bay, where three fishing vessels went down in the last year, but were in favor of mandatory boat inspections.
Peacock said the fishermen really needed to look at some of the safety suggestions.
“I’m tired of seeing people go down,” he said. “Who in this room, who do we know will be next?”