Wiscasset selectmen heard a second proposal involving drones at their Tuesday, Sept. 15 meeting, this time from a representative of the shellfish committee. The committee is investigating the use of drones to enforce the shellfish ordinance and prevent poachers from depleting a hard-fought-for resource in Wiscasset, Richard Forrest said to selectmen.
The issue was brought to the attention of selectmen because the committee did not want to investigate the matter further unless the town supported the initiative, Forrest said. Selectmen advised the shellfish committee to bring the proposal in front of the selectmen and the budget committee during the next budget season, in part because the estimated $2,000 expense for drone use was not incorporated into the committee’s 2015-2016 budget.
The approximate price of a bushel of clams three weeks ago was $200, Forrest said, a price which has attracted poachers to Wiscasset’s mudflats. “This really bothers me,” Forrest said. “We put in so much to get this resource to the point where harvesters can make a living.”
While not a dire situation, there have been scattered instances of poachers digging clams in Cushman’s Cove and Polly Clark Cove, Forrest said. The poachers are sophisticated, oftentimes travel by water, and are difficult for Shellfish Warden Jon Hentz, who serves three municipalities, to catch.
Brunswick has already adopted the use of drones for surveillance of their mudflats, Forrest said. The shellfish committee is exploring the feasibility of adopting a similar program in Wiscasset. The estimated cost of a drone, armed with a camera, to patrol Wiscasset’s mudflats is estimated to be $2,000. Training the shellfish warden to use the technology would be an additional expense, Forrest said.
Selectmen denied use of a town account to fund the UAV Academy class at the Wiscasset Middle High School in August, in which students would build a hobby drone, due largely to the controversy surrounding the commercial application of drones in the military. The class was later funded through an account controlled by the school committee.
The shellfish committee has been in touch with both the school department and the airport, Forrest said. The drones currently being built by high school students are different from the drones used for law enforcement, Forrest said. The shellfish committee has also been in touch with the Wiscasset Municipal Airport to discuss the safety of using drones.
Despite being used within 5 miles of the airport, the airport manager did not feel that drones on Wiscasset’s mudflats would interfere with the flight pattern of planes using the airport, Forrest said. Given the liability issues and controversy involved in drone use, Forrest said he did not want to do any further research unless he knew town government supported the initiative.
Selectmen took no official vote and engaged in limited conversation about the use of drones to enforce laws governing the harvest of shellfish. Due to the expenditure not being included as a separate line item in the shellfish committee’s budget, selectmen suggested the committee float the idea to the town by including it in their budget for 2016-2107.
By doing so, the budget committee and board of selectmen would have the opportunity to weigh in on the issue, and, if the expenditure passed through the budget process, voters would have the final say.