One cold night in April 1983, narcotics officers arrived at the Northeast Harbor Marina on Mount Desert Island. The drug-sniffing dog with them strained at the end of a leash. They’d received an anonymous tip that some of the scallop boats in the area had been carrying illegal drugs along with their catches. They waited in the shadows, preparing to pounce on the evidence that would confirm the rumors.
Out on the dark waters, a 42-foot scallop dragger named Joshua’s Delight glided toward the harbor. One of the fishermen aboard that night was my father, Frank Ryan, then 34. He shared a drafty, two-room cottage with my mother and me, then just a toddler. It was built for two seasons — there was no indoor plumbing and it was heated with a wood stove — but we lived there all year long. Despite fishing these waters on and off for almost 10 years, he was barely able to keep our small family fed.
That night, my father hoped his luck was changing. Joshua’s Delight’s 300-horsepower engine strained under the weight of the day’s catch — over 1,000 pounds of scallops. The haul was worth as much as $7,000, about the cost of a new pickup at the time.
But he wasn’t thinking about scallops. While dredging the ocean floor that afternoon, their nets had caught something else. When they hauled them up, among thousands of scallops were chunks of a sticky, leathery substance shaped like the sole of a shoe. Dense and potent, you could smell it the instant it came on deck: hashish.
My dad and the crew exchanged nervous looks, but they were excited, too. They’d heard about the hashish — a resin derived from the cannabis plant, stronger than marijuana — lying on the ocean floor from other fishermen who’d stumbled upon it in seasons past. There had been vague stories of it being dumped overboard by drug runners. “Maybe it was connected to the mafia, I don’t know,” my dad told me later. “During Prohibition, there were rumrunners. Maine has always been a good place for smugglers and pirates.” Back in the early 1980s, he continued, scallop nets pulled up so much hash that many fishing vessels carried a designated bucket to stash it.
After all the stories they’d heard, my dad and the crew were finally getting a piece of the action. Over just a few years, an entire drug economy had sprouted up around the mysterious bounty. “Everybody knew somebody who smoked pot,” my father told me. Once the word got out, everyone would ask the fishermen if they had “any of that hash.”
That day, as they pulled the sticky resin out of their nets in pieces, he guessed they’d snagged about 20 pounds. It would be worth about $8,000 on the local market. If he brought it to Massachusetts, it would go for even more.
My dad tried to keep calm as he helped tie up the boat that night. He reassured himself that there had been very little surveillance of fishermen. In those days, the industry had few regulations. The small fishing towns were also buttoned up: If a few fishermen were selling hash, folks generally kept it to themselves. That was the Maine way.
In the darkness, my father began unloading when he spotted the investigators approaching the boat ramp with their dog. He quickly stuffed the hash into a white plastic scallop bag, then tossed it to the captain, who popped a hole in the bag so it wouldn’t float and dropped it over the stern. The cold, inky water swallowed it.
As the lawmen boarded, the four fishermen froze. They hadn’t had time to wash the deck. The powerful scent of hashish lingered.
The dog began sticking his nose in everywhere, barking and wagging his tail. My dad worried there were still small pieces of hash in the bucket they’d been using. He anxiously shifted from one foot to the other, watching the dog skitter around the boat.
The lawmen examined everything on deck, opened up all the bins, then went down into the forecastle where the crew of four cooked, ate, and slept. After thoroughly searching the vessel, they found nothing incriminating. As my father tells the story, they reluctantly left to meet another fishing vessel pulling into port.
Perley Fogg was at the helm of the Surf King. Short and stocky, the 27-year-old was one of the most successful fishermen in the region. On this day, he recalls, he had collected some 50 pounds of hashish. But someone had warned him about the authorities.
Perley, a man had announced over the radio, if you’ve got any small scallops, you better get rid of it.
On the way into Northeast Harbor, Fogg had hauled up someone else’s lobster trap and stuffed all his hash into it, then dropped it near Hunters Beach. He’d leave it there for a few days while things cooled off.
As soon as Fogg tied up, the authorities boarded his boat with their dog. But he was a smart aleck. Before the animal could get a good sniff, he says, he throttled his vessel’s big Cat-brand diesel engine. It roared, sending up huge plumes of exhaust and sea spray, rocking the boat hard.
Startled, the dog leapt overboard, splashing into the near-freezing sea water. His handlers scrambled to pull him out.
“Shut your engine off,” an officer barked at Fogg.
“What d’ya say?” Fogg cackled, leaning against the throttle. “Rev the engine up?”
“Shut it off!”
Fogg just swore at them and revved his Cat engine higher.
As they pulled the dog out of the water, Fogg could be heard hollering, “The Cat scared the dog! The Cat scared the dog!”
It took my father 26 years to tell me about his hashish fishing days.
It was 2009, and I was living in Boston, getting a graduate degree in mental health counseling and thrilled to finally be escaping the hand-to-mouth way of my childhood. In middle school, TV taught me about the world outside, and a sense of shame settled in as I realized how little we’d had compared with what I saw on screen. I fantasized about being middle class, driving a new car, living in a house that didn’t look like it was falling apart. I yearned to live in a city and work at a desk, something neither of my parents had ever done or wanted to do.
Each summer while earning my degree, I returned to Mount Desert Island to work at an art gallery that sold paintings to wealthy summer people. Among the who’s who of “cottage” owners on the island were the Rockefellers, the Astors, the Johnson family of Fidelity Investments, and Martha Stewart. At work, I hung paintings, tracked inventory, and served wine and cheese at openings. During that time, I became all too familiar with the “haves” of the island. Some were polite and friendly, but many looked right past me as I served them. In spite of myself, I mostly admired them.
Some nights after work, I’d sit with my father at his kitchen table while he nursed a Budweiser, recounting tales of his fishing days. He’d worked on boats starting in the mid-1970s. Between fishing seasons, he did carpentry, which he eventually took to full time when the bottom fell out of the fishing industry.
One day, my dad told me a tale about fishing for sunken hashish. At first, I didn’t believe him. Why would there be drugs at the bottom of the sea? He knew few details about how the hash had found its way there, other than it had apparently been scuttled by drug smugglers, so I listened with some skepticism. But every time my father told his hash story, his face would light up.
Soon, it became my summer ritual to head back home to Maine and hear more of my father’s stories, and I started recording them on my phone. He suggested I talk to the other fishermen who dragged up the hash, and I began to think of collecting their stories. I felt there was value in preserving a piece of rural Maine life before it was forgotten.
In 2011, I began reaching out to more than 20 fishermen I’d known as a kid. A dozen finally agreed to tell their tales of fishing for hash, though few agreed to use their names out of concern for their connection with any illegal activity. They spoke about hauling the stuff up in their nets, how you could immediately smell it on deck — an overpowering smell, like clam flats.
Fishermen would take the chunks of hash home, scrape off the paper wrapping and viscous sea slime, and leave it to dry. For a time, it seemed like it was everywhere. “You’d be walking into someone’s house and you’d say, ‘What the hell is that smell? Is your septic tank backed up?’” Oscar Look, a lobsterman from South Addison, told me. They’d say, “‘No, no, no, we’re drying some of that sea hash.’” (Look died in 2014.)
As the fishermen tell it, some cast the hashish back to sea, for fear of getting into trouble with the cops. Some smoked it. Some sold it locally; some took it to Massachusetts, New York, or Philadelphia, where profits were higher. They told me about hiding it in lobster traps, then using large plastic buckets and duffle bags to transport it.
Between 1980 and 1984, the fishermen I interviewed say, hash money was everywhere. One man bought a new pickup truck. One bought a new boat. One, legend has it, used the money to buy an entire house in Bar Harbor. Narcotics agents dug up $40,000 in cash one fisherman had buried in a bucket in his backyard. My father called the whole thing “the Downeast get-rich-quick scheme.”
It didn’t always go according to plan. One fisherman said that he and a friend had driven a trunkful of the stuff over the border to Canada to sell it at a biker bar, apparently at the urging of a contact they’d made. They left the drugs locked in the car and went in for a drink. “When we came out,” he says, “every door in [our] vehicle and the trunk was all busted open and everything was gone.” They’d been set up by the buyers. “We were young and dumb. All we got out of it was a buzz.”
None of the fishermen really got rich, though. Most considered the sea hash a nice little bonus, a gift from the ocean. But once word got out, boats carrying outsiders from far afield showed up to get a piece of the great “sea hash” gold rush.
“There were boats where they wouldn’t get one scallop and they’d be towing on the hash,” recalls Mike Berzinis, former captain of the Miss Emily. “They’d sift the sand like gold miners. They were obsessed with it.”
One thing I couldn’t figure out was how the hash had found its way to the waters off rural Maine in the first place.
One fisherman had mentioned a boat called the Tusca, and when I brought it up to others, their faces lit up. I began getting bits and pieces of what was obviously a much larger story. I spent days searching newspaper archives for a boat with that name, to no avail.
Then it dawned on me: that Maine accent.
What I was looking for was not the Tusca, but the Tusker. That was the 135-foot seagoing tug that showed up in Little Machias Bay on the frigid evening of December 11, 1978, carrying some six tons of hash.
The Tusker had been owned by the Coronado Company, a drug trafficking organization founded by high school friends in the early 1970s in Coronado, California, close to the Mexican border. Coronado’s founder, Lance Weber, once swam in a wetsuit and flippers up the coast from Mexico with pot wrapped in plastic and attached by a tether to his belt. As the organization earned more money, it recruited more smugglers and purchased boats to transport the haul.
In 2015, I tracked down Lee Strimpel, a former Coronado operative. Shortly after talking with me on the phone, Strimpel invited me to meet him in person in Texas, where he and his wife, a painter, lived in a camper on a friend’s ranch. Struggling to reinvent himself after his eventual felony conviction, Strimpel had moved to Texas to become a ranch manager.
The day I visited him, Strimpel was in his mid-60s, a tall, thin, affable man wearing the obligatory cowboy hat and boots. He told me that he joined the Coronado Company in 1973. He’d gone to high school with a handful of other members, including Lance Weber. Their former Spanish teacher, Lou Villar, helped communicate with suppliers. Over the next decade, the ring reportedly smuggled well over $100 million worth of marijuana and hash into the United States.
By 1976, the action on the West Coast was getting too hot. The Coronado Company decided to relocate the entire operation to the East Coast. With its countless harbors, bays, and inlets the Maine coast provided “ideal geography” for drug smuggling, as the state attorney general later put it. In just five years, between 1978 and 1983, more than 15 such operations would be busted along Maine’s 3,500-mile shoreline.
As Strimpel tells the story, the Coronado Company needed a base of operations. On a dead-end road in Cutler, Maine, they found an old farmhouse, complete with a barn and a beautiful ocean view out to the Black Ledges, shoals that were precisely the landmark they needed to locate the house from the sea. Strimpel and another Coronado operative posed as rich businessmen in search of a new property. Before sealing the deal, they flew in a small plane over the house and coastline so they could see it from the air. It looked perfect.
For a caretaker and contact, Strimpel installed his longtime friend, a carpenter named Roland Weber, and his wife in the house in Cutler. The couple’s job was to keep a detailed daily log of any sightings of air, vehicle, or marine traffic. They were also expected to ingratiate themselves to the neighbors, have them over for dinner, then send back reports on anything they picked up.
In May of 1977, according to Strimpel, Coronado successfully smuggled several tons of Moroccan hash through Maine. A second smuggling operation that October brought in Thai stick, which were marijuana buds skewered on pieces of wood and wrapped in leaves.
The operation was dangerous but lucrative. “I would say we were probably paying [our supplier] between $100,000 to $150,000 a ton” for Thai stick, he explains, and estimates that it might have gone for roughly $300 to $500 per ounce on the street.
Over the history of the operation, he says, they moved $150 million worth of drugs.
High reward, but also high risk. And with a massive shipment of hashish still to come, they were pressing their luck.
In the fall of 1978, the Tusker set out for another operation, departing from Pakistan with some six tons of hashish from Afghanistan. Estimates of its worth vary wildly, but the street value was likely around $12 million, the equivalent of over $50 million today.
The Tusker motored for some 50 days, going all the way around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, rather than toward Central America. “You just don’t drive up to the Panama Canal with [that much] hash and slip through,” Strimpel says.
During a storm in the North Atlantic, the crew failed to take down the antennas, which then froze and broke off. Later, the vessel lost heat. By the time the Tusker reached Maine, the crew was hypothermic.
Strimpel worried that he’d had no communication with the Tusker since it had left Pakistan, but he knew when they were expected to arrive. He also knew the house in Cutler was getting too hot. Roland Weber had reported seeing a Chevy Blazer repeatedly come by the house; he’d seen the same vehicle parked at the police station.
Strimpel devised a new plan. On the evening of December 12, one day before the Tusker was due to arrive, he set out from shore in a Zodiac inflatable boat. He’d started 10 miles south of the house in Cutler, trying to make sure he wasn’t being tailed. He planned to beach the boat, break it down, and lug all the equipment through the back of the house, then start working the radio to make contact with the Tusker.
As Strimpel motored up the coast that frigid night, feeling his way for the Black Ledges, his heart practically stopped. He saw something looming large in the moonlight. It was the Tusker. “She was sitting right there,” he recalls. A huge boat, 135-feet long, 393 tons. “This thing was bigger than big. Full moon, and there was this ship sitting there,” he says. “And I was going, [Expletive] me.”
Strimpel hadn’t planned for this. He says he picked up Weber and motored straight to the ship. “You need to go back out,” he told the captain, “come back in five days.” The captain said he’d already sent two crew members ashore.
With horror, Strimpel realized that the Tusker had been sitting out there for two days, in full view of shore. He tried not to panic. They turned the Zodiac back toward shore. Before they landed, a Coast Guard cutter appeared with lights blazing, heading straight for the Tusker. They’d been spotted. “Up on the cliff all of a sudden we see like 20 or 30 guys, and you just hear, ‘There they are! We got ‘em!’” Strimpel recalls. The only thing they could do was make a run for it.
Strimpel knew he wasn’t going to outrun the Coast Guard in the Zodiac. He motored past the drop house toward the trees, beached the boat, and pulled the drain plugs. He shoved the Zodiac back out in the water where he hoped it would sink before the authorities discovered it. Then he and Roland Weber took to the snowy woods. (Weber did not return messages left at a number listed for him in public records.)
Strimpel knew the area intimately — he’d hiked it to prepare for this exact scenario. “I was ready to rock and roll. I had full packs. I had topographical maps of the area. All we had to do was hike a few miles through the woods back to the main road.”
If they could put some distance between them, Strimpel knew that the authorities wouldn’t connect them with the Coronado Company. “I wouldn’t care if they found me on that highway,” he says. “We would’ve been five miles away from the scene and would’ve lost the maps and anything else that tied us to the bust.”
But they struggled to see in the dark. A few hundred yards in, coming up against dense underbrush, they decided to hunker down into their sleeping bags and wait. Dawn would come in a few hours. They could head for the road then.
But Strimpel had made a mistake: He’d forgotten to pull the keel plug of the Zodiac, and the boat was still floating just offshore when the Coast Guard, Drug Enforcement Agency, Maine Marine Patrol, and other authorities arrived. They fanned out to track the men, following their footprints in the snow.
Around 3:30 in the morning, Strimpel awakened to the sound of men approaching and knew the game was over.
He served two years in federal prison and five years on probation.
How did the Coast Guard know to look out for the Tusker? Blame the very thing they thought would protect them: insular Maine. A neighbor living up the street from the drop house happened to be a Maine Marine Patrol officer named Leigh MacKeen, who got suspicious of the activity around the house. In the month leading up to the December drug drop, the Coronado house was under surveillance.
When the Coast Guard heard from locals wondering why a very large vessel had appeared in Little Machias Bay, they hoped this was the drop they’d been waiting for.
The Coast Guard sent out a cutter and another boat to intercept the Tusker. When the first crew boarded, they found nothing, so the cutter led the Tusker back to port to question the smugglers. “[I]t was a pretty big boat to look over in a few minutes and they had no idea what to look for,” recalls Garry Moores, a Coast Guard officer who was on duty during the bust. He surmises that the officers were looking for bales of marijuana, but the hash was packed “like pancakes” in dozens and dozens of metal canisters.
The canisters were 20 inches long, 10 inches wide, and 10 inches deep. Each one weighed between 50 and 75 pounds. During the Tusker’s short journey to shore, the crew managed to throw the canisters overboard. Later, locals talked about hearing the splashes. Many splashes.
Fishermen started finding the canisters at sunrise the very next day. A few were floating; others had broken open underwater. Over about a week, state divers reportedly recovered radio equipment and between 500 and 600 pounds of hash from the ocean, a fraction of the total. “We had enough evidence to prosecute them,” Moores says.
But, they didn’t find it all.
Strimpel says that even while he was sitting in jail awaiting arraignment, he pictured all the sunken canisters of hash left behind in Little Machias Bay. “I thought of the scallopers,” he says. “I knew they were going to have a heyday. ‘Here’s a gift, boys.’”
The gifts from the sea continued for some time. In 1983, five years after the operation in Little Machias Bay, authorities in Maine seized 108 pounds of hash — with a street value of more than $100,000, police said — and arrested three local men. The drugs were believed to have originated from the canisters the Tusker crew tossed overboard. “This has been an ongoing problem from individuals in the coastal area of eastern Maine,” the head of the Maine State Police’s organized crime/drug unit said at the time. Raids reportedly uncovered more drugs, plus 16 firearms.
“There were all kinds of deals going on and I knew people all over New England doing crazy stuff,” says former fisherman Mike Berzinis. “Some of the names are still floating around, like Whitey Bulger and all those guys. He used fishing boats to smuggle guns to the Irish Republican Army, all this crazy stuff.”
Former DEA special agent Michael Cunniff, who was among the law enforcement officials who caught Strimpel in the woods, speculates that some drug smugglers got away. “There were undoubtedly other successful smuggling events that were never discovered or prosecuted,” Cunniff says.
Other fishermen, like my father, were dabbling at a far smaller scale, often trying to make a few bucks or just feed their families. Cunniff takes care to emphasize that the DEA was sensitive to the realities of the fishing industry. “Our focus, meaning the task force comprised of federal and state and local authorities, was on organized crime,” he says. They realized many fishermen only turned to smuggling because they were backed into a corner. “Those folks were desperate to pay their bills, and they were exploited by gangsters. It was kind of a human chess game.”
Michael Povich, former district attorney of Hancock and Washington counties, says that the DEA and the DA’s office made a clear distinction between “criminals” and “outlaws.” Criminals were repeat offenders who often turned to violence and lacked empathy for people who stood in their way. Outlaws were people like my father and Perley Fogg. They lived seemingly regular lives — family men — but, as Maine fishermen, perhaps perpetually wary of the government and authority figures. The criminals were pursued in earnest; the outlaws were granted a degree of lenience.
In the 40 years since my father’s encounter with the authorities in the harbor, both the fishing industry and Mount Desert Island have become practically unrecognizable. Fishermen have weathered decades of increasing regulations and strict fishing quotas. Groundfish are dwindling and fishing licenses are scarce. Lobster fishing, the one part of the industry that’s remained relatively stable, is now facing a battle with ocean conservationists who believe lobster traps are disrupting the ecosystems of endangered species.
Meanwhile, Mount Desert Island and the areas around it are huge tourist destinations. It seems like most of us who grew up there, my family included, have moved to the mainland, where there is still a semblance of the Maine we knew — including less traffic and property at about half the price.
Almost all the fishermen I interviewed who worked in the ‘70s and ‘80s have long since moved on to other jobs — security guards, mechanics, truck drivers. Fogg still makes his living as a lobsterman, but my father left fishing in the ‘90s and has been a builder in Maine ever since.
I can remember glimpses of his fishing days during my childhood; the nights he brought home fish, snails as big as baseballs, and lobster too big to sell. In one Polaroid picture, an oversized lobster is holding his loafer in a giant claw. I’m now older than my father was back then, raising my own kids outside Boston in a community of what us “have-nots” used to call the “haves.”
As for the drugs, recreational marijuana was legalized in Maine in 2016. More than a hundred dispensaries have popped up around the state, including on Mount Desert Island. In 2020, cannabis became Maine’s most valuable crop, outpacing sales of potatoes and blueberries. It’s hard to envision that, half a lifetime ago, the area was awash in smuggled drugs pulled from the bottom of the sea. Today, my father, like many others, grows marijuana legally in his backyard.
Audrey Ryan is a clinical counselor and university lecturer from Mount Desert Island. She lives in Newton with her husband and two children. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.