Eastport wants cruise ships. Federal staffing problems may complicate that.

Staffing issues at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency threaten to curtail cruise ship arrivals in Eastport.
Aerial photo of a statue of a fisherman by the waters of Eastport.
Photo by Roger McCord.

Businesses in remote areas such as Eastport, the easternmost city in the United States, struggle with sparse population, available labor and a short tourist season.

So when cruise ship travel began picking up, the city’s Port Authority scrambled to take advantage of the thousands of passengers that could disembark to spend money in the seaside community.

Then COVID hit, affecting both commercial and cruise ship traffic. 

Eastport is finally beginning to recover from that economic drought and was looking forward to cruise ships again arriving in even greater numbers, according to Chris Gardner, executive director of the Eastport Port Authority. 

But a new wrinkle has emerged. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection notified Gardner in January that due to staffing shortages, there was some question whether it could handle screening four vessels due from Canada between mid-September and mid-October. The ships carry between 500 and 1,800 passengers. (CBP said it would be able to handle smaller vessels, like two Canadian ships scheduled to arrive with fewer than 200 passengers.) 

That has left local officials like Gardner frustrated.

“We have been told for years to build our economy,” he said. “The business side has stepped up to the front, the community has stepped up to the front, the regulatory side has not.” 

Eastport has more than a dozen ships set to arrive this season, said Gardner, but customs agents are only required for those arriving from outside the United States.

Gardner asked CBP why staffing did not appear to be an issue at the other Class A ports of entry in Maine — Bar Harbor and Portland. (Class A means the port is a designated port of entry for all travelers.) 

“We said we were entitled to the service,” said Gardner. “They said the other two ports are properly staffed and because of our unexpected growth, they are not staffed up yet.” 

The agency eventually agreed to provide personnel to screen the ships, but only if the Eastport Port Authority paid for it. Clearing passengers off the four Canadian vessels could take as much as eight officers working 10 hours, said Gardner, at a rate of $175 per hour, meaning processing could cost up to $14,000 per vessel, per arrival.

Gardner said the CBP also asked that the Port Authority install internet service at the pier and purchase as many as eight handheld devices that cost $5,000 each.

Sarah Flink, executive director of CruiseMaine, part of the Maine Office of Tourism, said the Class A ports in Portland and Bar Harbor received the same letter Eastport did in January, warning that staffing was low.

“All three of those ports have received communications from CBP this year indicating they should expect restrictions or delays,” Flink said, “so Eastport is not alone.”

But Eastport is more affected because of the limited number of passengers the agency can handle per vessel there, which is roughly 200.

At an April hearing on the proposed budget for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Sen. Susan Collins called on Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas to help find a solution to staffing issues at Maine ports in general and Eastport in particular. 

“The cruise ship industry is vital to many Maine communities and delivers millions in economic benefits to our state annually,” Collins said.

Collins raised similar concerns with Mayorkas last year when CBP refused to service an international ferry route between Bar Harbor and Nova Scotia unless the ferry paid the full annual salaries of four CBP officials, even though it only uses the agency for a few months each year.

In an emailed statement, a CBP representative said:

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is responsible for securing our nation’s borders while providing a safe and secure processing environment for the traveling public and our officers. All requests for new or expanded service are carefully reviewed to ensure proper staffing, infrastructure and facilities are in place in order to accomplish our vital national security mission. CBP is currently working with stakeholders, including the Port Authority, to confirm requests for services meet procedural guidelines.” 

Matt Burns, executive director of the Maine Port Authority in Portland, said they have had issues with not enough CBP staff available to handle the ever-growing traffic at the International Marine Terminal in Portland. 

“It just has kind of worked out,” he said. “CBP has made it work. We say, ‘If you guys are having issues, you have to let us know. Let’s plan.’ I chalk it up to the fact that we try to work with them.” 

Businesses welcome traffic

Set on a small island on the Canadian border, Eastport was once one of the nation’s busiest ports, entertaining more than 100,000 steamship passengers annually in the early 1900s. Passenger ships dwindled after the spread of the automobile, but the port’s naturally deep water – 65 feet at its deepest – made it attractive for cargo ships, which flowed in steadily over the decades. 

That was until the pandemic. The disruption in maritime shipping cut the tonnage flowing through the port to a fraction of its usual volume, from an average of 300,000 tons per year before the pandemic to less than 8,000 in 2022, according to previous reporting in The Monitor

At the same time cargo traffic was falling, the city saw a glimmer of hope in The Riviera, a cruise ship that docked, without passengers, in early 2020. Since then, business owners say the increase in cruise ship traffic has extended their season by four months, with visits as early as May and as late as October. 

Cruise ships are booked two years out and Gardner said the trend is generally upward. 

“We’re still exploring all of our options,” he said. “Then we’ll have to do whatever is necessary to save the business. If we have to go to this overtime model, we might have to pay customs more per vessel than we average on a vessel. The Port Authority then would be subsidizing the visit.” 

Other coastal towns have pushed back against increased cruise ship traffic.

Three towns on Mount Desert Island — Tremont, Southwest Harbor and Northeast Harbor — voted in recent years to ban cruise ships. Bar Harbor, which sees hundreds of thousands of cruise ship passengers each summer season, recently won a court victory, allowing it to cap the number of passengers who come ashore each year.

But in Eastport, many businesses are hoping the flow of cruise ship dollars continues. Lisa Stephen, who owns Sweeties Downeast, a candy shop on Water Street, said the cruise ship traffic is essential in extending the season to make starting and operating a business in the city viable. 

“The biggest one we had last year had a little under 2,000 passengers,” she said. “The town looked busy but it was never overrun.” 

Greg Gordeon, the Full Fathom Five Gallery owner, has been in business six years and said the cruise ship traffic has more than doubled the gallery’s revenue. “July and August is our busy period. May, June, September and October make a huge difference for the community and the whole surrounding area.”


Jacqueline Weaver

Jacqueline Weaver is a veteran journalist, including a decade of reporting on Hancock County for the Ellsworth American. She covered Jimmy Carter's campaign as a rookie reporter for United Press International, and later freelanced for the New York Times and Reuters, among others.
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