After 40 years policing Maine’s commercial fishing industry, Marine Patrol Col. Joe Fessenden probably has enough fish tales to fill the book he hints could be part of his retirement plans.

Like the time a fisherman snagged an unexploded bomb weighing several hundred pounds in his net and, unsure what to do, brought it right into Portland’s busy harbor. Or the night a fisherman tried to pick a fight with the linebacker-sized officer on the dance floor after the man’s son was busted for poaching lobster.

And then there was the night when Fessenden and other officers rushed to move bale after bale of marijuana from a seized fishing vessel to two rental trucks so federal drug agents could make the scheduled delivery to the unsuspecting buyer in Boston.

But as Maine’s top Marine Patrol officer prepares to retire next month, Fessenden says it is the relationships he built within the fishing industry and the times he could act as facilitator – not just a law enforcement officer – that he reflects on with pride.

“I got a lot of satisfaction from people, from fishermen, thanking me for helping them,” Fessenden said. “This job has opportunities to help a lot of people.”

Department of Marine Resources staff will hold a change-of-command ceremony on Jan. 9 to mark Fessenden’s departure and his replacement by Maj. Jon Cornish, currently the Marine Patrol’s deputy chief. Seated in his Hallowell office on Monday, Fessenden noted with a laugh that he actually conducted the background check on Cornish 30 years ago before bringing the young officer on board.

“Forty years of institutional knowledge are being lost. He is a tremendous asset to the state,” said Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher, the seventh commissioner under whom Fessenden has served. “However, he has certainly done the work upfront to make sure his successor hits the ground running.”

FAIR AND TRUSTWORTHY REPUTATION

As chief of the Maine Department of Marine Resources law enforcement wing for 20 years, Fessenden developed a reputation as an evenhanded officer and then as a leader able to build trust within an industry filled with fiercely independent operators who are often skeptical of regulators. To many people in the industry he is simply “Joe” or sometimes “Colonel Joe.”

Mike Dassatt, a fisherman and secretary-treasurer of the Downeast Lobstermen’s Association, said Fessenden had a common-sense but straightforward approach to dealing with problems.

“He was definitely a no-BS person: If he thought there was a problem somewhere, he would make known that it needs to be addressed in some way, shape or form,” Dassatt said, adding that Fessenden was a “fair guy” who was responsive to his group’s concerns. “If I ever had to call him up about something, he either got back in touch with me or we sat down and talked.”

Fessenden joined the Marine Patrol – then known as the Coastal Warden Service – in 1975. A Bangor native with no family connections in the fishing industry, the young Fessenden said he grew to love Maine’s friendly, close-knit coastal communities while driving the Down East delivery route for Jordan’s Meats as a high school and college student.

After an initial placement in the midcoast region, Fessenden was assigned the job of policing Portland’s bustling – and unruly – fishing port. It was the “boom days of groundfish and commercial fishing in general,” Fessenden said, with the docks, streets and bars crawling with fishermen flush with money.

Fessenden said he tried to build relationships and even friendships with boat captains, deckhands and dealers. But he also patrolled the port, oftentimes checking boats and their catches alone at night.

“Every once in a while you’d get a big case, and almost always I would know the captain or know the crew,” Fessenden said. “I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, but it was my job and I got a certain amount of satisfaction from doing it.”

In 1979, Maine fishermen who believed huge shipments of Canadian-caught groundfish were undercutting U.S. prices created a boat blockade to prevent a ferry carrying truckloads of fish from unloading in Portland. The U.S. Coast Guard, Portland Police Department and Maine Marine Patrol all got involved to discuss how to respond to the tense situation. But after Fessenden and other law enforcement officers met with the fishermen, they agreed to end the blockade after media coverage helped draw attention to their concerns.

“What I learned out of that was, if we had gone in there and hauled the people off of their boats and had a heavy-handed response, those relationships we had (developed) with the industry would have been gone,” Fessenden said.

By the time Fessenden was named Marine Patrol chief in 1994, Maine’s lobster landings had more than doubled – from 16.5 million pounds annually to 38.9 million pounds – since his career began while the cod catch was in the midst of a dramatic decline. So one of Fessenden’s first major challenges as chief was enforcing new regulations that, for the first time, capped the number of lobster traps at 800 per license and made lobstering a “limited-entry” fishery.

“That created a lot of conflict,” Fessenden said. “I did the best job I could do … to enforce it, and what that meant was a tremendous amount of meetings and outreach to the lobster industry.”

CRISIS IN PORTLAND HARBOR

Two years into his job as chief, Casco Bay’s fishing community faced a potential calamity when the tanker Julie N struck the bridge across Portland harbor, ruptured and dumped more than 170,000 gallons of petroleum into the water. His efforts to ensure that those who were affected received compensation – and that those who were unaffected but were looking for a handout did not get one – earned Fessenden credit from fishermen and the first of two Meritorious Public Service Awards he received from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Gerry Cushman, a midcoast fisherman who serves as president of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, said Fessenden did “a great job” in a difficult position. Cushman, who like most Maine fishermen has fished various different species over the years, credited the chief for working closely with the Maine Lobster Advisory Council and for focusing on improving fisherman safety.

“The one thing that really sticks out about the colonel is he listens, and that is important to fishermen,” Cushman said. “He listened and really valued fishermen’s opinions.”

Of course, lobstering remains rife with territorial disputes and familial rivalries that occasionally lead to cut traps, sabotaged boats and even gunfire.

At least four lobster boats were sabotaged and eventually sunk in the midcoast between 2009 and 2012. And in 2009 a longtime Matinicus Island lobsterman shot another fisherman in the neck amid escalating tensions between the two families over vandalized lobster traps.

Fessenden said he knew all of the parties but it wasn’t until one of those involved urged Marine Patrol to send officers because “there is going to be trouble” that he realized how bad the situation had become. One of the dispatched officers was climbing the ladder onto the wharf when the shots rang out.

“It’s a hell of a challenge,” Fessenden said of policing the occasionally rough-and-tumble lobster industry. “But one of the ways I have been able to deal with it is … I acknowledged that we have all of these unofficial territories on the coast of Maine.”

That acknowledgment didn’t sit well with everyone because, despite fishermen’s claim to a particular spot, state law actually allows licensed lobstermen to fish anywhere within their zone. But Fessenden said it allowed him and his staff to sit down with feuding parties to attempt to negotiate a truce – all the while reminding the parties of the heavier-handed tools available to him as Marine Patrol chief.

Headed into his final two weeks on the job, Fessenden was unsure about his next role but said he wants to stay involved in the commercial fishing industry – after a few months’ break, that is. He said he owes a debt to his family – including his two children – for bearing the sacrifices that came with him working a high-profile job with long, unpredictable hours. But he credited fishermen for working with him and other Marine Patrol officers throughout his career.

“If we didn’t have such high (regulatory) compliance rates with fishermen, we would need a lot more than 50 officers,” Fessenden said.