BAR HARBOR —Tensions between commercial lobster license holders in Lobster Management Zones B and C flared in a dramatic fashion last month with the report of a trap-cutting war that resulted in an estimated $350,000 loss of gear.
Now, both lobstermen and legislators in Zone B are in early talks about how to alleviate the anxieties between the two zones.
Intentional trap cutting impacts the livelihoods of lobstermen and their families and raises tensions between adjacent lobster management zones.
According to Department of Marine Resources (DMR) Commissioner Patrick Keliher, reports of trap cutting between the two zones had been ongoing since early summer, but escalated recently with losses into six figures. A typical set, including trap, buoy, rope and toggle, can cost up to $100 or more. In some cases, more than one trap is set on a single buoy, meaning the loss is even greater.
In early November, Operation Game Thief, a private group working with the DMR, offered a $15,000 reward to anyone who comes forward with information about the incidents.
The state’s coastal waters are divided into seven lobster management zones. Zone B extends westward from Schoodic Point to Newbury Neck and includes eastern Blue Hill Bay. Zone C stretches from Newbury Neck to Cape Rosier, encompassing eastern Penobscot Bay and the waters around North Haven, Vinalhaven, Deer Isle and Isle au Haut.
Maine Marine Patrol Col. Jon Cornish said last month that “this trap war is without a doubt the most costly loss of gear I have witnessed in my 32-year career.”
DMR spokesman Jeff Nichols said Monday that no charges have been filed, and the investigation is ongoing.
The anxiety between the two zones stems from the DMR’s double-tagging provision. It allows lobstermen to fish up to 49 percent of their trap tags outside of their primary zone.
For example, Zone B license holders can fish 51 percent of their traps in Zone B and 49 percent of their traps in Zone C and vice versa.
Until earlier this year, Zone C was essentially an open zone, meaning anyone with a lobster license was permitted to fish there. This also meant more Zone C lobstermen were fishing outside of their primary zone into Zone B.
Some Zone B fishermen believe it’s unfair that Zone C lobstermen are crowding their waters, considering the fact that Zone C traditionally records the highest lobster landings in the state.
State Rep. Brian Hubbell (D-Bar Harbor), who also acts as the Zone B Lobster Management Council’s legislative representative, has filed a bill request with the Maine Legislature that would prohibit new commercial license holders from fishing outside of their primary zone.
Current lobster license holders would be grandfathered into the provision and would be allowed to continue fishing 49 percent of their gear outside of their primary zone.
After a recent informal discussion with Zone B lobstermen, Hubbell pitched proposed policy changes to Keliher.
Proposed changes included eliminating double-tagging altogether, meaning lobstermen would be permitted to fish only in their primary zones.
Another proposal was to alter the double-tagging percentage from 49 percent outside of a license holder’s primary zone to 20 or 25 percent.
Hubbell said the commissioner was “cool” to those ideas, which would upend the current rulebook and impact the state’s five other lobster management zones.
“After talking to Zone B fishermen, they want to shutout double-tagging altogether,” said Hubbell. “This is a reasonable middle ground.”
Now that Hubbell has initiated the bill request, there is room to alter the language based on recommendations from Zone B fishermen as well as from the DMR.
Once the bill is officially introduced, likely in January, the public comment and hearing period will begin.
“I’m not sure that legislation will solve this issue now,” said Hubbell. “But it is an important tool and an important step.”
Anyone with information about the trap-cutting incidents should contact the Operation Game Thief hotline at 1-800-253-7887. Information also can be provided through the OGT online tip reporting form at www.maineogt.org/report.