MACHIAS, Maine — Scallop fishermen’s concerns about the Navy’s plans to bury a power cable under Machias Bay have been somewhat eased, but the precise impact on their activities will not be known until federal officials determine later how dragging will be allowed in the area.
Navy officials met with commercial fisherman Tuesday evening at the University of Maine Machias to update them on their plans for the project, which will connect the Navy’s communications facility in Cutler to the power grid. The facility currently relies on diesel generators for power.
The Navy facility, which began operating in 1961, provides coded communications to ballistic missile submarines. The Navy wants to connect the property to the power grid via a cable that would be buried under Machias Bay and routed to the Bangor Hydro Electric substation in the village of Bucks Harbor below Machiasport. As proposed, the $14 million project would require only a few weeks to bury the cable 3 to 5 feet below the ocean floor and would be completed by the summer of 2015.
The impact on the scallop fishermen will not be clear until the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration decides how the cable will be designated on nautical charts — either as a cable line or a cable area. The agency will not make that decision until after the project is completed. The decision criteria includes the depth the cable is buried.
If the cable is designated as a cable line, fishermen would be allowed to tow their gear — which harvests scallops on the bottom — to the line but not cross it. If the agency designates it as a cable area, they would be prohibited from scallop dragging in the immediate vicinity on either side of the cable. The agency will make its decision in consultation with the Navy.
“We think a line will have less impact on the fishing industry,” Lee Enzastiga, a project manager with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Norfolk, Va., told the fishermen in attendance. “It’s up to NOAA to make the final determination,” he added.
Only two fisherman attended Tuesday’s meeting, but Michael Murphy, who also is a member of the Machiasport Board of Selectmen, said other fishermen were expecting him to represent their interests.
“I think as long as NOAA cooperates, I don’t see any problem with it,” Murphy said about the cable designation.
In addition to the two fishermen, Machiasport harbormaster Wade Day and a member of the state Department of Marine Resources staff attended Tuesday’s meeting.
Navy officials, who had briefed the state Scallop Advisory Council in October, also revealed Tuesday that the preferred route of the cable has been moved slightly southward.
Catherine Creese, director of the naval sea floor cable protection office in Washington, D.C., told the fishermen that officials would provide the cable GPS points for use in their electronic navigation equipment.
The cable would straddle two scallop management areas in Machias Bay. Last year’s scallop season attracted anywhere from a dozen to 30-40 boats, depending on the time of the season, according to Murphy.
The transmitting station is located on a peninsula of nearly 3,000 acres near the village of Cutler. The project will provide a number of benefits, according to the Navy. It will greatly reduce air emissions from the diesel power plant and save $3.9 million annually in fuel costs, for example. The project is expected to pay for itself in a little more than six years, according to the Navy.
The project is still in the design phase, which is scheduled to be completed this winter. The Navy also is in the process of applying for various federal and state permits in conjunction with the project.
Navy officials held an open house meeting about the project in Machias in August. Jobs and the potential impact on scallop fishing were on the minds of local officials who met with Navy personnel in advance of the open house. Navy officials met with representatives of five towns in the immediate area — Machias, Machiasport, East Machias, Cutler and Whiting.
The communications station has about 65 civilian employees, 17 of whom work in the diesel generating plant. The Navy will not know how many of those jobs would be eliminated until completion of a study that would be performed after the project is done and the facility is powered by Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. Since the diesel generators would only be used as a backup source of power, however, it seems clear that a number of those jobs would be eliminated.