An Interview with Joe Fessenden

In January, Colonel Joe Fessenden retired after 21 years in command of the Maine Marine Patrol. He was gracious enough to allow this interview.

Colonel Fessenden was born and raised in Bangor, graduating from the high school. I asked how he became interested in joining what was then called the “Sea and Shore Fisheries Wardens”.

“I heard about it from a friend of the family. He was a game warden, and he and my father owned some land together. I was interested in maybe the Warden’s Service, but he was talking to me about the coast. I really was interested. I used to go to Bar Harbor and Sand Beach as a kid growing up, and I really liked that whole area. He mentioned to me one day that there was this other outfit called the Sea and Shore Fisheries Wardens and I started looking into it. Over a couple of years I had a chance to meet a few Sea and Shore guys down east, down in Jonesport, and had a chance to talk to them. I thought it would be really interesting to work on the coast and to get involved with commercial fishing.”

Too young to become a Fisheries Warden, Fessenden studied law enforcement for two years at the University of Maine at Bangor, a community college. He drove truck for Jordan’s Meats, but remained determined to work for the Sea and Shore Fisheries. He got his foot in the door with the state working, for eight months, for the Maine Department of Agriculture as an egg inspector, full time at DeCoster Egg Farms. No fond memories there, but it taught him regulatory work and the importance of inspection.

He got his position with Sea and Shore Fisheries in June of 1975, and was assigned to the Pemaquid region. “Back then shellfish was a huge issue up there, enforcement of closed areas, people harvesting clams in closed areas, a pretty big responsibility as a public health issue. And we had a lot of commercial fishing going on, a lot of lobstering going on. Shrimping was big back then. Some scalloping. Pogies were around during that period of time, Menhaden were in the rivers in a big way. Some herring activity. So I got up on commercial fishing pretty quick. I did some boating safety, but I really started out chasing people down in closed areas, to tell you the truth. Up in Waldoboro there was a lot of closed area digging going on and we spent quite a bit of time down there in the middle of the night.”

One thing Joe didn’t have was boating experience. “I had a 20 foot outboard. I didn’t have a lot of experience boating on the ocean – I had hardly any experience. So I had to start learning how to operate a boat in salt water. The training back then was not as formal as it is now, certainly.”

Until 1976 the Coastal Wardens received only conservation training, no formal law enforcement training. Joe attended the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in the fall of 1976, among the first Coastal Wardens to graduate. I asked him why it had been decided that the Coastal Wardens – soon to be the Maine Marine Patrol – would henceforth go to the Criminal Justice Academy. “Well, I was told back then that the Commissioner and the Chief wanted a separate entity, professional law enforcement officers enforcing all laws along the coast, in addition to conservation officers, and really professionalize the group.”

When Joe signed up in 1975 about half the force carried firearms – it was at the individual warden’s discretion. “Today they’re required [to carry] but back when I came on about half the officers didn’t carry firearms. The old timers didn’t carry guns, most of them.”

He was transferred to Portland, and promotion to sergeant came in 1981, and with it came leadership as a field supervisor. “It was quite a difference for me, because the job before that had been independent, pretty much set my own schedule and worked my own activity.” Now he found himself supervising five or six officers, in addition to field work.

I asked him whether he enjoyed being in a leadership position. “I was always excited about the opportunity to get ahead, to promote up through the ranks. I really wanted to do that. But initially I was a little disappointed in what I had seen. I finally came to the realization that not everyone worked the same way. They weren’t as focused or whatever. My focus was marine resources and commercial fishing, and it was a way of life for me, it was all or nothing for me as far as the job goes. And when I started working with other people I realized that these people have a life! And don’t get me wrong, they should have a life, and it’s not all about commercial fishing and enforcing marine resources laws.” He took some leadership courses and came to understand and appreciate the mentoring side of being a supervisor and “and after a few years I liked being a supervisor and a leader.”

Joe has some good tales of marijuana smuggling along the Maine coast in the 70’s and early 1980’s. “It was fun, it was interesting, and it was certainly a distraction from our primary responsibility.” Eventually “we got a directive from our chief telling us to refocus our efforts back onto commercial fishing laws” and let the feds and the other agencies handle drug smuggling.

One night a sting was set up using a Canadian scalloper (the Reba O), which had been busted offshore, full of bales. It was necessary to unload the cargo and truck it to Boston so the purchaser could be apprehended. DEA asked Joe if he knew of a Portland-area pier where the big scalloper could be unloaded in secret. “I worked out a deal with Yarmouth chief of police Dick Perry, and he was able to get me access to the dock at Cousin’s Island, a real secure area. Jim Salisbury and I met the Reba O and brought it into Casco Bay and to Cousin’s Island. We were unloading the pot, this is like one or two in the morning, racing around, the tide down, quite a struggle getting these 60-80 pound bales of pot over the dock and into a truck. And Willie Spears, lives on Cousins Island right above where we were unloading this boat. Willie went by, I don’t know if he was going lobstering or gillnetting, and I was down aboard the Reba O, and I can remember him looking over and seeing what was happening, and I can remember his eyes getting real big.”

In 1986 Joe was promoted to Lieutenant, Division Two (Kennebec to Penobscot). He was there a year before a vacancy opened and Joe returned to Portland. I asked him how the commercial fishing scene in Portland differed from down the coast. The gillnetters, groundfishermen and scallopers “approach fishing more as a business than a lot of fishermen down in Division Two. Even though fishing was important to both groups, they were more businesslike in Portland, seemed to operate differently. It’s more kicked back, life style a little slower down east.”

Joe was, of course, a witness to the explosion of the groundfish fleet. “The expansion of the groundfish fleet was incredible, the rapid expansion. I got there in 1976 [originally]. It was a time when the 200 mile limit was coming into play and there was a lot of money being invested. Washburn and Doughty was building million dollar draggers left and right for fishermen in Portland. There was a lot of money being invested, a lot of money being spent, and a lot of money being made. It was wild times. A lot of money kicking around the waterfront.”

“There was a period of time when we had fleets from the mid-Atlantic states coming up here to fish for scallops on Jeffrey’s Ledge and Jeffrey’s Bank. And there were scallops everywhere outside, to the point where they were shell-stocking, they’d come in with 2000 bushels a trip, the hold would be full and the decks would be full. And they were all close to the 3 inch law. And it created a lot of jobs and a lot of opportunity but a lot of it was right borderline, lots of enforcement activity.”

“And lobsters on draggers. There were a lot of lobsters being landed on draggers. And my whole approach to that whole thing was to keep it at a low profile. I would board vessels and I was pretty unpredictable, and I had a few cases. I used to do the best I could do. I worked a lot of nights. I used to work during the day and go home for dinner and go back out, a tremendous amount of hours on the waterfront. There was a lot of times I did it alone.”
“I knew most of the people I was dealing with, I really got to know them. And that probably makes me a little different from a lot of law enforcement people. All different people, all different types of relationships with people, but I can honestly say in the end there’s not many people I could tell you that I really disliked. A few people, but not many.”

Joe believes the huge lobster harvests of recent years are sustainable, despite the pressure on the resource represented by sales of three million trap tags a year. “It’s a sustainable fishery. I am walking away from the fishery thinking that it is sustainable, and I hope they’re able to maintain it. There’s a lot of reasons for it. Mother nature. The escape vent law. Trap limits. A lot of management decisions were made. And the industry complied. Day in and day out with lobstermen we have very few problems with them complying with laws and rules. A very very small percentage of people in the business that are right out there and not going by the regulations. The support overall from the industry has been phenomenal. The day in, day out fisherman, the guy who goes out every day, they really support the rules. They do a hell of a job stewarding the industry. We’re very very lucky.”

I asked him Joe about DMR’s shift away from court and toward an administrative hearing process for determining if a fisherman will lose his or her license. Joe applauds the shift, despite his telling me, just three years ago, that the administrative process would be used only on bad actors that DMR needed to get out of the fishery fast. Why the change? He told me the Attorney General has told Marine Patrol that it should not be picking which process (court or administrative) should apply to a given violation. “We shouldn’t single someone out for the administrative process, and use it on this guy, and not use it on the other guy. We should use it on everybody. That’s why that’s changed.” He does not have any concerns with due process, believing the administrative process sufficiently fair.

We spoke about boom and bust fisheries, including, of course, urchins. Maine’s Emerging Fisheries Act has helped a lot, allowing DMR to rapidly make rules. “The urchin fishery was a total mess. Our biologists had done a lot of research and had gotten a lot of feedback from California and other palaces where they harvest sea urchins. And we just couldn’t get the Legislature to really act to slow it down until it was too late. I’m not really blaming the legislature but the volume of urchins that was being landed . . . We had hearing after hearing, Department rulemaking. And we had people who would go to these hearings and talk about the never ending supply of urchins, and how the divers would just take the urchins feeding high on the kelp, and as soon as they took those the little ones would march up from the bottom and replace those, and next year you’d come along and take those, and there was an endless supply of urchins. And this is what the legislators kept hearing. There was a whole group of people running around saying you could never exhaust sea urchins, there was an endless supply of them. The biologists knew that wasn’t true, and they put up any number of presentations, but there was this whole thing about this endless supply, and how many people depend on it and what are they going to do if there are cut backs, and before you knew it the fishery collapsed. And it was awful. But the Emerging Fisheries Act helps. We used that on sea cucumbers, we slowed that down. We get criticized all the time – there’s all kinds of people looking for sea cucumber licenses.

After twenty-one years in command Colonel Fessenden has few regrets. He things the force should be bigger, with 54 officers instead of the present 49 (these numbers include the chief and the entire command structure). “You look at the State Police, work a twelve hour shift. They work eight and are on call four. And our officers work eight and are on call for sixteen. The State Police changed their schedule in 1985. And 30 years later we’re still on the old fashioned schedule. That’s my biggest disappointment. It’s a budget issue. We had some governors who loved these across the board cuts. I never was a fan of across the board cuts. And when you hit eight years in a row with across the board 5%, 8%, 3% whatever, when you have vacancies you give up the position and the Legislature says ‘Well, they didn’t need it then.’ I had support from the Commissioners, in some cases we had support from the Marine Resources Committee, but when it comes to the bottom line it’s the Appropriations Committee that runs the show.”

What’s next? He going to stay involved in fishing, not in law enforcement but as agent for a company selling an innovative technology to assist commercial fisheries management. Stay tuned!

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