March 4, 2010

Island bomb range reopened to fishing

— From staff and news services

The Coast Guard will withdraw its decision to close fishing grounds around a remote Maine island where unexploded bombs were found underwater earlier this year, according to U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine.

Lobstermen had objected to the closure, arguing that traps have been hauled off Seal Island for decades without incident.

Willy Ritch, a spokesman for Pingree, said her office was notified about the Coast Guard's change of mind Tuesday night, one day after the rule prohibiting fishermen and mariners from going near Seal Island became public knowledge.

The Navy used the rocky outcropping as an aerial bombing range from the 1940s until the early 1960s. Today, about 35 fishermen tend to hundreds of traps off the island, about 20 miles off the mainland in Penobscot Bay.

Coast Guard officials closed those waters in response to the discovery of unexploded bombs on the ocean bottom. The rule, which took effect Sept. 8, established a safety zone extending into water as deep as 60 feet around the island.

Pingree questioned the Coast Guard's decision on Monday.

''The island hasn't been used for target practice for 50 years, and has been fished for decades since then,'' Pingree said in a prepared statement. ''Obviously, safety is an important concern but it's hard to understand what has suddenly changed that prompted closure of this area.''

The munitions are potentially dangerous, said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Jeff Hall.

''An urchin diver spotted what he described as thousands of shell fragments and shells on the bottom while diving for urchins,'' Hall said. ''Even though we don't have a good handle on what the threat level is, we want to err on the side of caution when it comes to public safety.''

Ritch said Pingree was told that the Coast Guard reversed its decision because of the economic hardship it would cause and because it cannot confirm that the bombs pose a threat.

The Navy transferred the 65-acre Seal Island in 1972 to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the island in cooperation with the National Audubon Society for nesting seabirds, including puffins.

The island is closed to public access.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

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