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Mariners Skeptical about Coast Guard Change to Lighthouses

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine -- Some Maine mariners reacted with skepticism Thursday afternoon to the news that the Coast Guard will automate fog signals at 17 lighthouses around the state and make them activated on demand.

The federal agency said that the move will modernize the alert system and replace the "less reliable and less efficient" VM-100 fog detectors now at the lighthouses, according to a media release issued Thursday. When the signals are converted, mariners will be able to activate them by keying a standard VHF-FM radio five times consecutively on VHF channel 83A. The signal will make noise for up to an hour after each activation.

Dave Cousens of South Thomaston, president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, pointed out that using the new system successfully will require mariners to roughly know their location on the Maine coast. While most lobstermen don't rely on sound signals when they're working in their home territories, they can be important for transient mariners.

"It sounds kind of crazy," he said. "What if you don't know where you are? I'm not so worried about lobstermen -- I'm more worried about tourists."

He said he thinks that the way the fog signals currently work is just fine and that there's no need to automate them.

"I just think they should leave it alone," he said.

Eight of the signals already have been installed in Maine and New Hampshire over the last six years. Once each conversion is completed, the federal agency will work to announce the change to the local mariner community. It also will initiate permanent changes to nautical charts and the Coast Guard Light List, according to the media release from the Coast Guard.

"The MRASS devices will replace aging fog detectors that are prone to failure, expensive to maintain and require specialized training to preserve," Capt. Michael Baroody, the commander of Coast Guard Sector Northern New England, said in the release. "We believe giving the mariner more control is an effective way to enhance the coastal aids to navigation system."

According to an information sheet distributed by the Coast Guard, the light characteristics and sound signals will all remain the same. Only the way that the sound signals are activated will change.

David Gelinas of the Penobscot Bay & River Pilots Association said that the pilots were briefed on the coming change over the summer.

"We recognize that the Coast Guard does have budgetary constraints," he said. "More and more, automation does seem to be the wave of the future. I think the Coast Guard thought things through pretty well."

Still, changes come hard to mariners, he said.

"It's more about making an adjustment to the times we're living in," he said. "We like to stick with what's been tried and true for hundreds of years. Anything new is met with skepticism, but the Coast Guard laid out a pretty reasonable plan."

The lighthouses scheduled to receive the mariner radio activated sound signals are: Browns Head Light in Vinalhaven, Burnt Island Light in Boothbay Harbor, Cape Elizabeth Light in Cape Elizabeth, Dog Island Light on Dog Island off Eastport, Egg Rock Light in Frenchman Bay, Fort Point Light in Stockton Springs, Goat Island Light off Cape Porpoise, Goose Rocks Light on North Haven, Heron Neck Light near Vinalhaven, Marshall Point Light in St. George, Owls Head Light in Owls Head, Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth, Seguin Light on Seguin Island, Spring Point Ledge Light in South Portland, Two Bush Island Light on Two Bush Island, West Quoddy Head Light in Eastport and Whitehead Light on Whitehead Island.

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