Forty years ago, life on the water along the coast of Maine was quieter — life seemed simpler, with an easy working and recreational coexistence between residents and users of Maine’s coastal waters. Much has changed since then, and the arrival of airboats to our coastal waters is one of the biggest.

Powered by a high-horsepower engine driving a large aircraft style propeller, the airboat has become an increasing presence in the tidal regions along the coast, and the collective noise level produced by these machines has risen astronomically. If you live, work, or recreate near mudflats, you have no doubt experienced the roar of an airboat’s engine.

Thousands of Maine residents, boaters, fishermen and visitors suffer when unregulated airboats are on the water. The operators wear the best ear protection! Loud, continuous noise is a proven cause of stress in the human body and unregulated airboats are the epitome of “loud.” Yet currently, unlike all other watercraft in Maine, airboats are exempt from state noise regulation.

Maine residents have made their displeasure known to local and state officials. Reacting to special interest pressure, the Legislature concluded that airboats are a special class and removed them from regulations that apply to all watercraft. Even as increasing complaints came to local law enforcement agencies of all stripes, airboats were allowed to roam free.

Beginning in 2020, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW) focused on the question of regulating airboat noise. They performed sound tests of airboats to see how loud they were under certain conditions and found that, yes indeed, the machines were very loud. Complaints from residents and other waterfront users continued, reinforcing that the excessive noise was unacceptable. The Legislature directed IFW to find a solution through rule making, which then proposed a noise limit for airboats of 100 decibels. This met with overwhelming public objection, and the rule was withdrawn.

Subsequently, IFW convened a stakeholder group to work on the problem. Comprised of IFW and DMR staff, airboat operators who are shellfish harvesters, coastal residents and town officials and enforcement personnel, the group was tasked with developing a consensus-based solution to the noise problem. After many meetings, and an on-the-water demonstration, no consensus was formed. The airboat operators rejected any meaningful restrictions on noise levels from their boats. IFW simply proposed their decibel limits in its report.

A hearing was held on April 12 before the Joint IFW/DMR Committee on LD 114; “An Act To Address Airboat Operation in the State,” which is the proposal from IFW and DMR. The bill offers no relief for Maine residents and waterfront users given its focus on airboat sound levels favored by the airboat operators.

Rep. Melanie Sachs of Freeport has proposed LD 89, “An Act to Regulate Airboats”. This bill offers real solutions, including lowering the decibel limits for airboats, and making the proposed working group more inclusive, especially of environmental interests.

Airboats can be useful for fishing, hunting, tourism, law enforcement and rescue. Maine residents respect the right to harvest shellfish along the coast, but not without regulation. And make no mistake, there is already a move afoot to bring airboats to Maines’ inland lakes and waterways. The effect of the noise will be keenly felt by residents, camp owners, businesses that depend on tourism and last but not least, by the wildlife that finds safe haven in Maine’s quiet places.

Maine has an opportunity to set meaningful regulations on the operation of airboats and the excessive noise they generate before it’s too late. Maine residents and those who use the waterfront for business and pleasure need, and deserve, a solution to airboat noise. We need to do away with the attitude exemplified by the name on a locally owned airboat; “Too Loud, Too Bad.”

If you’ve experienced the noise from airboats and are frustrated like many are, you can submit written comments before the work sessions on LD 89 and 114. This is a critical time for Mainers to provide input before a law is written that we cannot live with. Please support LD 89, and oppose LD 114. To submit your comments, go to mainelegislature.org/testimony/

Thomas “Spike” Haible is a resident of Harpswell and a member of the IFW airboat stakeholder group.

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