The Oceania Cruises ship Riviera sits tied up to the city's downtown breakwater pier on Friday, July 31, 2020. The ship was tied up to the pier without any passengers for roughly 45 days while waiting out a federal 'no-sail' order. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

When a Russian-flagged ship was denied entry to Eastport earlier this month, it was an oddity for Maine ports. Maine doesn’t have a recent history of turning away foreign vessels that seek to come to shore.

In fact, no one can recall any ship being turned away ever — though it’s possible it might have happened in the distant past.

But it could happen again. Without knowing how long the pandemic and Russia’s bombardment of Ukraine might last, international shipping and associated politics will continue to make things less predictable for ports around the world, not just in Maine, according to the head of the city’s port authority.

“We’re all moving into a brave new world,” Chris Gardner, executive director of the Eastport Port Authority, said Wednesday.

Gardner said that in the 15 years he has held the position, he doesn’t recall another foreign ship having been denied entry in Eastport prior to the Fesco Uliss, which contacted Eastport on March 3.

The port’s lack of prior experience with the vessel operator and the type of cargo the ship is carrying were factors in the decision, though less significant than U.S. opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He also said the 5-days notice the ship gave Eastport about its anticipated arrival time was unusually short.

“We’re the first port in Maine to have to face that decision,” Gardner said of the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “We sometimes have to think bigger than Eastport, Maine, and sometimes bigger than even the state of Maine.”

Matthew Burns, interim executive director of Maine Port Authority, said Tuesday that he knew of no other Russian vessels being denied access to a port in Maine.

Eastport over the years has made an effort to be flexible, and to try new things such as hosting empty cruise ships or handling livestock shipments, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine made the decision to say “no” relatively simple, Gardner said. The ship is based in the Russian port of Vladivostok, but information about who owns or operates the ship was not readily available on Wednesday.

The vessel left Riga, Latvia, on Feb. 15 en route to Trois-Rivieres in Quebec but never made it to that destination, according to a report by The Maritime Executive. After Canada announced on March 1 that it was banning Russian ships at its ports, the Fesco Ullis contacted Eastport for permission to dock in Maine instead.

As of Wednesday, the ship was offshore Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, according to Marinetraffic.com.

Gardner said in addition to potentially fielding more requests from other ships affected by the war in Ukraine, Eastport is expecting to host a handful of cruise ship visits again this year, after having none for the past couple of years because of the pandemic. He said that cruise ship visits to Eastport could increase in coming years if Bar Harbor, Maine’s busiest cruise ship port, tightens restrictions on cruise ships, which Bar Harbor officials have said they plan to do.

“We’re all watching to see what Bar Harbor is going to do,” Gardner said.

The Fesco Ullis is not the first time that there has been a controversy in Maine over a visiting foreign ship.

In 2020, Eastport decided to host a cruise ship with only crew members on board at the city pier after the covid pandemic brought the cruise industry to a halt.

The local port authority’s decision to allow the Riviera to dock, though no one was allowed to board or leave the vessel while it was there, was criticized by a few local residents because of fears over exposure to the deadly disease. The ship, which is registered in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean, spent roughly six weeks in Eastport after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a no-sail order for all cruise ships, and ended up paying roughly $70,000 in docking fees to the city before it departed for Europe in mid-July of that year.

In 2017, the German-flagged cargo vessel Marguerita was detained in Portland after it had illegally dumped oily bilge water at sea and then falsified a logbook in an attempt to cover it up. The firm that operated the ship later was fined $3.2 million by a federal judge in Maine for the violation.

BDN writer David Marino Jr. contributed to this report.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....