A close up look at the Portland harbor dredging project

With Munjoy Hill in the background, the massive dredger for Cashman Dredging prepares for another plunge into Portland harbor.

With Munjoy Hill in the background, the massive dredger for Cashman Dredging prepares for another plunge into Portland harbor.

Recently I had the chance to speak with Lance Hanna, Deputy Harbor Master for the Port of Portland. He talked about the dredging project going on in Portland harbor, and the effort to save lobsters and crab species from the dredger’s teeth. The effort has drawn criticism because of the low number of lobsters that have been caught in the harbor by the lobstermen hired for the project. Hanna clarified some of the details, and highlighted the value of the scientific data that has been recorded during the project.

-He also let me tag along on a trip out to the dredger and the barges operating in sync around it. I’ve seen it all several times from the lobster boat, but never had a chance to get a real up close look at the whole operation. The dredger is one of the biggest in the world, it’s pretty cool stuff.-

One of the world's largest dredgers, operated here by Cashman Dredging, pulls up a load from the bottom of Portland harbor.

One of the world’s largest dredgers, operated here by Cashman Dredging, pulls up a load from the bottom of Portland harbor.

Hanna explained some of the results from the last time they dredged the harbor fifteen years ago:

“Fifteen years ago they dredged the harbor. They required Portland to remove the lobsters from the harbor because of the concentration of lobsters here. In other ports in Maine they don’t require it, but in Portland they do. They fished for the lobsters last time in the fall (as opposed to the winter this time around) and they got 36,000 juvenile lobsters out of the harbor. So it seemed worthwhile to protect them again this time.”

Water and sediment spew out of the dredge in Portland harbor.

Excess water and sediment spew out of the dredger in Portland harbor.

He said that the number of actual lobsters saved can be difficult to quantify because of all the egg bearing females that are caught:

“You’re not only talking about the physical lobsters, but there’s also been a significant amount of ‘eggers’ out there and for most of them the average is 80,000 eggs. One percent of those will make it to the dinner table, so 80 lobsters for every female wind up getting caught by lobstermen. We you take those factors into account you can see that we’ve saved a lot more lobsters than it might appear.”

The dredger in Portland Harbor prepares to drops its load onto the neighboring barge.

The dredger in Portland Harbor prepares to drop its load onto the neighboring barge.

Then he explained how the stagnancy in Washington affected the whole thing:

“We were gonna fish in the fall like they did fifteen years ago. We expected about 36,000 lobsters. The strategy was to stay two weeks ahead of the dredge. So they didn’t want us to start fishing until two weeks prior to the dredge arriving in Portland. Due to the government shutdown and some other commitments for other army corps projects that Cashman (Dredging) is working on, they got delayed getting here. They didn’t actually start dredging until the end of January, so we didn’t start fishing until the very end of December. No one was really sure if fishing for the lobsters in the cold weather would be worth it or not.”

The dredger in Portland harbor rises up from the neighboring barge after dropping its load.

The dredger in Portland harbor rises up from the neighboring barge after dropping its load.

He stressed the importance of the project’s findings, even though not as many lobsters were caught as fifteen years ago:

“The findings tell us for certain that in the wintertime the lobster count is way down in the harbor. They may or may not have migrated out, some will hole up in the mud and stay there year round while some will migrate out. We’re hoping that most of them migrated out, the ones that we didn’t catch. if we didn’t do this project, the next time that they dredge they wouldn’t know for sure when to fish for the lobsters. Now they’ll know.”

Another barge operates near the dredger, on the ready with supplies and extra crew to help.

Another barge operates near the dredger, on the ready with supplies and extra crew to help when needed.

Addressing the misinformed grumblings that the effort was a waste of $90,000:

“$90,000 is the cap (for the project), but that’s not what has been spent at this point, it’s just the cap. $90,000 employs many hours for the administrative burdens to enter all the biological data that we gather into the system. It also pays for two sea samplers, the lobster boat, the licensed lobsterman and the stern man, the specialized traps, the bait, and the fuel. It also covers the cost of replacing all the traps that we lose.”

Workers talk from the barge holding the crane to the barge holding the sediment.

Workers talk from the barge holding the crane to the barge holding the sediment.

He explained the frustration of losing gear to the massive propellers of oil tankers, a problem that lobstermen in Portland understand all too well:

“These traps are highly specialized and vent-less. They’re also expensive, because of the small mesh there’s more wire and it costs more to build them. We’ve already lost about 25 traps, and that comes out of that $90,000 budget, but anyone who knows anything about fishing in Portland harbor knows it is very difficult to fish there with the amount of shipping traffic that we have without losing gear.”

The crane lowers the dredger to the bottom of Portland harbor.

The crane operator for Cashman Dredging lowers the dredger to the bottom of Portland harbor.

Then he broke down the figure for how many lobsters have been saved thus far:

“Right now it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,400 lobsters. Probably ninety percent or higher are juveniles,we do get some keepers and some oversized ones and many of them are eggers, but the process has also yielded important biological data on shell disease, size and sex of lobsters. We’ve also got a lot of important, new biological data on sand crabs, Jonah crabs, and green crabs. We know right now that the green crab infestation is mainly up on the mud flats up towards Sprague Energy and Veterans bridge. It has yet to really get into the lower harbor. That type of information is vital for the state scientists.”

Cashman Dredging runs a smooth operation in Portland harbor.

Cashman Dredging runs a smooth operation in Portland harbor.

Note: As a result of the dredging there has been an increase in the number of times the Casco Bay Bridge is drawn up each day. For those of you affected by this inconvenience, and for anyone in general who hates getting stuck on the bridge, there’s a website that can help you get around the problem. If you sign up for the service, which is free, you’ll get text messages sent to your phone anytime the bridge goes up or down. According to the site, cascobaybridge.com “details step-by-step how to get text alerts sent to your phone. The service is free! The alerts are sent out by the Maine Department of Transportation but cascobaybridge.com shows you how to convert those alerts into a text message.”

Chris Shorr

About Chris Shorr

Chris is a lifelong Portlander who works on a lobster boat, advocates for the marginalized and downtrodden, and occasionally ruffles feathers in City Hall and Augusta.