SOUTHWEST HARBOR — A proposal to almost double the fee for lobster buyers using the Manset Town Dock didn’t sit well with representatives of two competing dealers who complained to selectmen Tuesday that the increase should be higher.
Sheryl Harper of Southwest Lobster and Rob Bauer, sales manager for Beal’s Lobster Pound, argued that, as property taxpayers, their businesses were subsidizing out-of-town buyers using the Manset dock. Both businesses are located on the northern shore of the harbor.
“You’re really putting us out of business little by little,” Harper told selectmen.
The current annual fee for lobster buyers using the Manset dock is $2,300. Selectmen at their Feb. 23 meeting voted to raise the fee to $5,000, but after hearing from Harper and Bauer, they agreed Tuesday to suspend that decision in order to consider the matter further.
The issue is not new to the town. In 2009, when the fee was $1,000, Harper and Sam Beal, who owned Beal’s at time, came to selectmen with the same complaints. The $1,000 fee was in effect until 2015, when it was raised to $2,300.
Harper asked selectmen how the fee increase had been set.
Chairman George Jellison said the Harbor Committee determined the fee schedule. “That’s what they came up with,” he said.
Asked what she thought would be a fair fee for buyers using the dock, Harper replied that the fee should be at least equal to the $22,000 she pays annually in property taxes plus “maybe a per-pound charge” levied on the purchased lobsters.
Bauer said the situation in Southwest Harbor is “unique;” there are only a few towns that allow lobster buyers to purchase product directly off a public wharf. Prohibiting that activity would not have a major effect on lobster fishermen because they still could truck their lobsters to any buyer they choose, he said. Bauer suggested that the town charge the buyers a per-crate fee of perhaps 3 cents for every crate of lobsters they purchase.
Selectman Dan Norwood cautioned that basing the fee on a per-crate or similar charge would be difficult for the town to monitor.
“It needs to be something fairly simple to tally for one thing,” he said. “[Harbormaster Adam Thurston] can’t be there all the time.”
A flat-fee would be an easier method for the town to ensure compliance, he added.
Another selectman, Lydia Goetze, said the issue raises another question: “Should the town be running a commercial fishing business?”
Goetze said she isn’t convinced the town should do so, especially if the practice conflicts with the needs of recreational boaters.
RDR Lobster in Trenton currently is the only buyer paying the annual fee for use of the Manset dock, Lagrange said Wednesday. Occasionally the Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound buys from the dock, but that business pays a daily use fee, he said.
The discussion Tuesday led to another issue regarding the Manset facility. Selectman Dave Minctons, who is a lobster fisherman, questioned the ability of the dock to safely accommodate large trucks like those used by lobster dealers.
“I look at it every day,” he said. “I’m not sure I’d back a truck up on it.”
Selectmen agreed that an engineering firm should be hired to assess the structural integrity of the dock.
In another related matter, selectmen are working to develop a harbor management plan to better clarify how that asset to the town can be better regulated. They have scheduled an April 14 meeting to gather input from interested parties.