ELLSWORTH, Maine — Acadia National Park officials and fishermen from surrounding towns got the chance Tuesday to clear the air about the park’s marine areas.
Acadia is considering joining a national network of marine protected areas that include a variety of types of zones or areas that help conserve and protect marine resources. Fishermen and municipal officials from several surrounding towns have expressed concern that the proposal might be a move by the park to place additional restrictions on fishing or other commercial marine activities next to park land.
On Tuesday, officials from Acadia, National Park Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Maine Department of Marine Resources met with about three dozen people at a downtown coffee shop to discuss the proposal. By joining the network, Acadia will not impose or pursue any further restrictions or expand its jurisdiction beyond its existing boundary, federal officials assured fishermen. The deeded boundary of the park varies from parcel to parcel, but nowhere along the shore does it extend farther into the water than the low tide line, they said.
Parts of the intertidal zone that are considered park property already enjoy federal protections, as do tidal estuaries within the park boundary. These protections already prohibit commercial shellfish harvesting or seaweed harvesting on park property, Acadia officials said. Joining the national network will not change that, they said.
Extending the park’s authority out from land beyond the low tide line, where most commercial fishing activity takes place, is not something park officials want and would be no easy feat, according to Acadia Superintendent Sheridan Steele.
“It would require a change in Acadia National Park’s boundary, which would require an act of Congress, literally,” Steele said.
The superintendent said he doesn’t view the park’s interest in joining the network as leading toward any sort of expansion of park restrictions or jurisdiction.
“I assure you, from my perspective, there is no next step,” Steele said.
The purpose of joining the network, which includes more than 200 areas across the country that are owned by state, tribal or federal entities, is to enable Acadia to apply for limited research grants and training sessions that are made available by NOAA’s National Marine Protected Areas Center, park officials said. Unless Acadia joins the network, it is not eligible to take part in the center’s programs.
Joesph Uravitch, director of the NOAA program, said his agency has no regulatory authority at all. It has only a $3 million budget, which is tiny by federal standards, and serves only to help coordinate information and some limited research efforts among member organizations, he said.
The benefits of joining the network will be small for the foreseeable future, but they nonetheless are expected help park officials manage Acadia’s resources, park officials said.
David Manski, head of Acadia’s resource management division, said that Acadia would be able to share with other network members information that is of particular interest to Acadia, such as climate change. As far as managing resources, Acadia would not be interested in gathering information on whales or migratory fish, he said, because whales and migratory fish do not appear within the park boundary and are not considered park resources.
Despite these assurances, many fishermen expressed concern about where the park’s proposal might lead — a concern that Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner George Lapointe said was understandable. Lapointe, who also serves on the National Marine Protected Area Advisory Board, said fishermen have witnessed one regulatory proposal lead to another as more and more restrictions have been placed on the commercial fishing industry.
“Whale [protection] rules over time have crept and crept and crept and never quit,” he said.
Lapointe said that by helping to coordinate information about issues that marine conservation areas are facing, the network is helping to provide officials and the public with better information about those issues.
Some fishermen said after the meeting that they felt more confident that if Acadia officially joins the National Marine Protected Areas network, it will not immediately result in new restrictions for them to deal with.
“It put some of my concerns at ease,” Bill Clark, a selectman and fisherman from Isle au Haut, said of the meeting. “[The park] has always been a good neighbor. My concern is about down the road, but none of us can say what will happen.”
Dan MacDonald, also an Isle au Haut fishermen and selectman, shared the same concern.
“It’s just another step on the ladder,” he said.
Park officials said they plan to continue meeting with concerned groups to share information about the proposal. They plan to attend the Zone B Lobster Council meeting at 6 tonight at Mount Desert Island High School and, at some point, to visit with town officials and residents on Isle au Haut.