Officials with Bay Ferries are preparing legal action following a decision by the Portland Board of Harbor Commissioners to approve a significant increase in pilotage fees.

The board approved a rate change on Thursday that would see an additional $1,000 US added to harbour pilot fees for The Cat coming in and out Portland. This follows a similar increase last year, which already prompted legal action by the company that runs the ferry between Nova Scotia and Maine.

Bay Ferries president Mark MacDonald said this year the company was paying about $2,700 US each time The Cat made a round trip to Portland, making for an annual cost of about $300,000 US. In 2016, the daily fee was about $1,700, he said.

Mark MacDonald, Bay Ferries

Bay Ferries Ltd. CEO Mark MacDonald says his company is challenging harbour pilot fee increases it is facing in Portland, Maine. (CBC)

In both cases, legal action is against the Board of Harbor Commissioners and Portland Pilots Inc., which operates the harbour pilot system.

MacDonald said he believes people are trying to take advantage of the company because it receives a subsidy from another government. Bay Ferries has a 10-year agreement with the Nova Scotia government to provide ferry service, which includes an annual subsidy and startup assistance.

"We treat the money that we spend the same way as we would as if it was our own money," said MacDonald. "It bothers us a great deal to be forced to make this kind of expenditure."

New legislation could help

Prior to 2012, ferries delivering regularly scheduled service were exempt by legislation from daily pilotage in Maine. MacDonald said it should be up to the company's captains, "as a matter of seamanship," to make the determination when and if they need a pilot.

"Our captains know the harbours and ports as well as the local pilots do."

But in 2012, while ferry service had stopped running between Nova Scotia and Maine, lobbying efforts resulted in the exemption being lifted. At the time, there was no one around to present the other side of the story, said MacDonald.

During the upcoming winter/spring session of the Maine State Legislature, Sen. Mark Dion is sponsoring a bill that would restore the pilotage exemption.

Still considering Bar Harbor

Meanwhile, Bay Ferries officials continue to examine a potential return to Bar Harbor. While they are separate issues, MacDonald said the situation in Portland is in the back of his mind.

"Where we're trying to get to is a long-term sustainable service at a cost that is acceptable to the people of Nova Scotia who are paying it."

Earlier this week, the ferry terminal property advisory committee in Bar Harbor finalized its recommendations for the site and on Tuesday town council will vote on the recommendations and whether to purchase the site from the Maine Department of Transportation.

Town likely won't put up money

Bar Harbor town manager Cornell Knight said the recommendation focuses on developing the site into a "multi-use marine facility" that could include tenders for cruise ships along with a private marina, boat launch, fuelling station and local ferry to the nearby peninsula.

Knight said there is "considerable interest in town for [Bay Ferries] to return." But while the committee's recommendation says that should be explored, it also says it cannot get in the way of the recommended marine use.

Knight said there's additional work that needs to be done at the terminal property and council doesn't have a price tag for that yet. While it hasn't been discussed, he said if work needs to happen to accommodate an international ferry, he doesn't anticipate "the town would be putting up money for Bay Ferries to come to Bar Harbor."