MOUNT DESERT — Under current state fishery regulations, young people who decide they want to go lobster fishing need to get started young.
Ronnie Musetti, a recent Mount Desert Island High School graduate, is a commercial fisherman and captain of his own boat. He’s had his lobster license from the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) since he was 17 and last year bought a federal license, enabling him to fish offshore. He keeps F/V Royal Fortune in Somes Sound in the summer and in Northeast Harbor in the winter.
“The first time I went out fishing with my grandfather Ronald, I wasn’t really that interested in it,” he said. “I remember being bored after half a day. I was probably eight or so. I wish I could remember exactly what it was that changed my mind on it. Nobody pushed me, but suddenly when I was 10 or 11, I was like, ‘This is pretty fun!’ It’s not like it was crazy money at the time, but if you catch 50 pounds of lobster and make $200 at that age, you get excited over that.”
The DMR has an apprentice program in the lobster fishery, which is how many young fishermen here get their start. Lobster management Zone B, which includes MDI waters, is a “limited entry” zone, meaning very few new licenses are issued every year. There’s a long waiting list. The apprentice program provides a way around the waiting list, some fishermen say. But most also support the idea of encouraging young people to enter the industry.
“I think the license system works well,” Musetti said. “I would think opening a zone (getting rid of limited entry) would lead to a lot of other issues. Just from what I can imagine, if tomorrow the zones would be opened, everyone that wanted to could go set traps. It would be a lot more traps in the water. I can see it leading to a lot of cutting and a whole heap of trouble.”
To qualify for a license under the program, a young person must log 1,000 hours fishing (a portion may be gear work) before reaching age 18. Those hours must be signed off on by a sponsor who holds a license in the same zone and periodically also by a Marine Patrol officer. Applicants also must complete a required safety education course.
Completing that number of hours, which also must be over at least 200 calendar days, and over at least 24 months, is a challenge while juggling school and other responsibilities.
“You’ve got to decide by the time you’re 12,” Musetti said. “If you’re working a 40-50 hour work week, that would be 10 weeks of work to do it in two years. That would be wicked hard.”
Sponsors are usually immediate family members, Musetti said, though that’s not required. “Everyone I can think of [who went through the program] has a family member, mostly a parent, maybe an uncle.” Critics of the program say aspiring fishermen with no qualified family available are at a disadvantage.
The DMR has suggested extending the program to allow apprentices to continue into their early 20s. A draft bill from the DMR recently was rejected by the Legislative Council, spokesperson Jeff Nichols said Monday, so it will not be submitted in the upcoming session. A redrafted bill may be presented again in December, he said.
Hours logged in the apprentice system need not be directly supervised, Musetti said. “My grandfather, Ronald Musetti, was my sponsor, and I logged a lot of hours going stern with him. But I logged the majority on my own skiff. Maybe 700 of my hours were on my own, and the rest were on somebody else’s boat.” He got a skiff at age 12, he said, and eventually took over his grandfather’s boat.
“Every day, you write down where you sold to, the times you went out. Your sponsor has to initial the log every day.”
He has stuck with fishing, he said, because he likes working for himself and working on the water. “I think that’s pretty cool. And the money is awesome.”
He’s well aware that good fishing comes in cycles. “If I was completely confident, I wouldn’t go to college,” he said. “You can look at your short time in it and be like, ‘Things look great.’ But when you zoom out a little bit, you see different trends. If you look at the lobster landings since they started reporting them, it’s always going up and down.”
He went to the University of Colorado Boulder in the winter after fishing his first fall after high school. He studied business. “If I don’t go back to Boulder, I’ll probably do online courses, because I want to have a backup.”
His advice to other apprentices is to be careful about meeting deadlines and requirements in the process. He also stresses the importance of learning the unwritten rules once you start fishing. “You have to learn how to keep other people happy,” he said. “I feel like being able to keep traps in the water is just as important as earning your license. You’re part of a community with a lot of self-policing.
“There’s a lot of guys that get their license and go through the system, and whether it’s because of how they act or where they set gear, it causes them to not be so successful. I think it’s a lot worse in other places in the state. We have it pretty good on the island.”