For more than a century, the Commission of the Harbor of Portland has worked to protect the harbor’s commercial viability and ensure that people’s experience on the water is enjoyable and safe.

We are now speaking up to oppose a bill that would make the harbor less safe for all users and put the fragile ecology of Casco Bay at risk.

Here’s the issue: Who do you want to be at the helm of the big ships that come into the harbor? Bay Ferries, the Canadian company that operates The Cat ferry, wants its captains to take the helm after just 15 days of practice. We believe, however, that all ships should be guided by the experts who daily monitor marine traffic and who best know the harbor’s hard ledges and muddy bottom.

L.D. 1752 would allow a captain on The Cat to operate without a pilot after taking only 15 pilot-assisted trips.

The problem with the bill is twofold. It allows someone with little experience in our harbor to operate a large ship here without oversight. Moreover, while a licensed pilot acts in the public interest, independent of the ship’s chain of command, the ship’s captain is accountable only to the company and faces pressure to keep to a tight schedule.

In the 1970s, when the Prince of Fundy was operating, its owner took advantage of a loophole in the state law that allowed that ferry to operate without a pilot. In 2012, the Legislature closed that loophole and required pilots on all ships of a certain size. It did so, in part, out of recognition that Portland Harbor is a much more congested place than it had previously been and pilots serve a critical role in ensuring the safety and security of the port.

Casco Bay in the summer is an active fishing area. More than 110 lobster boats are based in Portland and nearby islands. In addition, pleasure boats, tankers, cargo ships, Casco Bay Line ferries, and groundfish and herring trawlers routinely enter and leave the harbor through the same channel used by The Cat.

Portland in recent years has become a mecca for recreational boaters. When the Prince of Fundy ferry was in operation, there was just one marina and one yacht club here. Now there are nine marinas and clubs, plus two sailing schools. Also, Casco Bay has become a destination for paddleboarders and kayakers.

Cruise ship calls have also increased substantially, from zero in the 1970s to 103 last year.

Pilots typically board approaching vessels about 11 miles southeast of Portland in the area of the old Portland Lightship Station. They maneuver the ships past a series of ledges as they approach the harbor and its narrow shipping lane.

Pilots also serve a traffic control function by ensuring that a limited number of large vessels can enter and leave the port at the same time.

Portland Harbor has some of the most stringent qualifications for pilots in the country. The commission requires pilot applicants to work as an apprentice for 250 trips operating in all types of weather and to have two years of experience as a deck officer on a large seagoing vessel before they may be licensed to operate independently. The commission at any time can revoke a pilot’s license for negligence or other sufficient cause.

The commission is made up of five members: Patrick Arnold and Capt. Bill Van Voorhis of South Portland, and Daniel Haley Jr. and Bert Jongerden of Portland. I’m the chairman, appointed by the governor.

The commission hires the harbormaster and sets navigation rules. In recent years, the commission has been working to help the owners of private and public piers overcome the prohibitive cost of dredging.

In addition to overseeing the licensing of pilots, we also set the fees that pilots may charge to vessels using their services. The commission recently came to understand that the rates in Portland Harbor were well below the rates charged in other ports in the region.

Following an extended public process, the commission last year increased its minimum fees, from $709 to $1,077 per trip. The new fees are lower than minimum fees charged at other ports in New England: $1,175 in Bar Harbor; $1,286 in Rockland; $1,200 in Boston and Gloucester; and $1,900 in Providence, Rhode Island.

Bay Ferries doesn’t want to pay the fees, but a robust piloting service is critical to the harbor’s ability to be open for business. L.D. 1752 would weaken the harbor’s piloting service and threaten the safety of the public.