and a date has not been set for the service to resume.
It’s not clear what triggered this action by the U.S.Coast Guard; the state has provided ferry service between Richmond and theisland since the 1960s and the current ferry has been in service for seven years.
The move caused the cancellation of field trips to the island at the end of the school year, part of a conservation area managed by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife.
It has also halted other scheduled summer activities and programs on the island until the department can comply with the Coast Guard’s requirements.
The island, acquired by the state more than 70 years ago and managed for conservation and recreation, remains open for visitors, but they now have to get there under their own power.
“I am not sure why or how things have been perceived differently by the Coast Guard,” Ryan Robicheau, Wildlife Management section supervisor for the state Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, said.
“Based on the description of how we operate the vessel, they determined that it was in fact a ferry, which was different from past communications we’ve had with the Coast Guard.”
During those earlier conversations, he said, the determination had been made that because IF&W charged a fee for day use of the island regardless of how they get there and not for the ferry ride itself, the boat didn’t qualify as a ferry.
“I think that perception has changed,” he said.
Amanda Wyrick, a public affairs officer with the Coast Guard, said the captain of the port order was issued after the Coast Guard boarded the vessel in the Kennebec River.
Wyrick noted that all boats are subject to boarding by the Coast Guard.
Generally speaking, a captain of the port order can require vessels to anchor when there is reasonable cause to believe that a “vessel is not in compliance with any regulation, law or treaty.”
Wyrick said there’s no record of the vessel being inspected as a small passenger vessel, and as a result the captain of the port deemed it as “a significant unsafe boating condition and an environmental threat to the port and navigable waterways.”
In part of the order, issued May 27 and signed by Capt. A. E. Florentino, reads: “In my capacity as Captain of the Port in Northern New England, I have determined that operation of your vessel with passengers for hire represents a significant unsafe boating condition and environmental threat to port and navigable waterways of the United States. Therefore, I hereby order you to immediately cease operations as a Passenger Vessel until such time as it can be shown to the satisfaction of the Coast Guard that your vessel is being operated in compliance with all applicable federal laws and regulations.”
Among other things, Wyrick said, the department will have to provide the Coast Guard evidence of a detailed operations plan and crew training plan attesting to safe operations; obtain a valid certificate of inspection; provide evidence of an established drug and alcohol program that all crew members are enrolled in; and the master of the vessel must be a holder of a merchant mariner credential of the appropriate horsepower and tonnage while operating the vessel.
Failure to comply with the order could draw a civil fine of up to $103,050 for each day the vessel is in violation of the order; willful and knowing violation of the order is a felony that carries a possible six-year prison sentence or fines up to $500,000.
The Kennebec Journal requested the number of captain of the port orders issued in northern New England, but the Coast Guard hasn’t yet provided that information.
Robicheau said IF&W is complying with the order and has no plans to appeal it.
On Thursday, Robicheau said the dry-dock inspection of the vessel was scheduled to take place earlier in the week, and the department has been working to resolve a number of issues that were identified by the Coast Guard. They include providing different lifejackets stamped with the vessel’s name, a bilge pump with an alarm and confirming whether the existing fuel tank meets Coast Guard requirements.
He said John Pratte, assistant regional biologist at IF&W and the manager of Swan Island, is now pursuing licensure as a captain with credentials fitting the tonnage of the vessel. That requires a training course and physical and drug testing requirements.
“It’s going to take some time to go through both of those processes,” Robicheau said.
The ferry, which can carry up to 55 people in a single trip, was launched in 2015.
It replaced a 15-passenger ferry more than five decades old and a barge of about the same age that was used to carry trucks and heavy equipment on and off the island.
Pratte said before the state bought the vessel, it ran the plan by the Coast Guard and got a verbal approval to continue doing what it had done for decades.
The department has made investments in infrastructure to make it easier for people to get to the island on their own.
After upgrading the ferry, Inland Fisheries & Wildlife invested $300,000 in improving the bulkhead on the Richmond waterfront and paving the parking lot. At the same time, the department debuted an online reservation system to book reservations for day use or camping, sign up for events, or reserve space on the ferry.
The department has modified some of the docks on the island, at the campground and opposite the Richmond bulkhead. Plans are now in the works to improve the dock on the island and to provide people a place to safely store their personal watercraft, Robicheau said.
The suspension of the ferry service is expected to affect the revenue that visits to the island generate. The day use fees directly support two seasonal employees to oversee the island, including the campgrounds.
Over the last five years, annual revenue has ranged from a low of $23,828 in 2020 during the first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic to a high of $40,500 in 2018, with an average of $33,300.
This year, Robicheau said, the department is projecting only about $10,000, generated between Memorial Day and Labor Day by people able to get to the island without the ferry.
“If we see a drastic downturn in terms of people using the island, it does have some challenges in term of the budget we have available to staff the island during the summer,” he said.
Jessica Lowell — 207-621-5632 firstname.lastname@example.org