A tender ferries passengers back to the cruise ship Crystal Serenity as it sits anchored off Bar Harbor in 2016. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

After years of complaints, Bar Harbor is moving forward with an industry-agreed-upon plan to cut down on cruise ship traffic.

The Bar Harbor town council voted Tuesday night to put in more restrictive daily passenger caps, new monthly passenger caps and a limit on the number of cruise ships that can pull into the harbor every day.

These new restrictions come after residents have said that cruise ships and their disembarking tourists have contributed to overcrowding and congestion in the vacation hotspot, especially in September and October.

The limits, drawn up by a town working group, will be enacted through a series of agreements with individual cruise lines and already have the backing of the industry, according to town officials.

The council instructed Town Manager Kevin Sutherland to draft the agreements and bring them back before the council again later for an official sign-off.

The plan will put in daily passenger caps of 3,800 passengers in May, June, September and October. July and August will have 3,500 daily passenger caps.

There will also be caps of no more than 30,000 passengers total in the months of May and June, 40,000 in July and August, and 65,000 in September and October.

There can be no more than three cruise ships per day. Cruise ships would also not be allowed in April and November, months that historically have little to no traffic.

U.S. flagged cruise ships with under 200 people would be exempted from the daily cap.

The biggest change will be felt in the shoulder season, which currently has a daily passenger cap of 5,500 people. In the summer, the cap is 3,500 people.

This year is the first full cruise ship season since 2019. The pandemic stopped all cruise ship tourism in 2020 and only a small ship docked last year.

There have been questions about if the town could legally institute regulations without the agreement of the cruise industry. To avoid potential lawsuits, some council members have said the industry-backed plan is the best route to go even if it isn’t as strong as they would have liked.

“We talked about much more drastic reductions that I think would have certainly been more significant,” said Matthew Hochman, a town council member. “But I think they would have been more difficult to get the industry to agree to, and we need buy-in from the industry.”

Council members Joe Minutolo and Gary Friedmann voted against the agreements, saying they weren’t sure the reductions went far enough.

Deeper cuts could be on the horizon, though.

A citizen’s initiative that would allow for no more than 1,000 people per day to disembark from cruise ships is set to go before voters in November. That plan has drawn concerns from town leaders, who aren’t sure if it would be enforceable because municipalities had limited jurisdiction on the water.

Even with that vote scheduled for a few months, Hochman felt it was crucial to nail down these agreements directly with the lines now. If the citizen’s initiative fails — or passes and gets held up in litigation — the agreements will still result in reductions, he said.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen, how the vote will go with this initiative, how actions after the initiative will be,” he said. “This protects the town and in a lot of ways realizes some reductions.”