BAR HARBOR — The waters off Hancock and Washington County have been very productive for lobster fishermen in the last few years. And when business is good, more people want in.
Here in the Maine Department of Marine Resources’ (DMR) Lobster Management Zone B, though, a strict limited entry system has resulted in a very long waiting list for new commercial lobster licenses. The current limited entry ratio in Zone B is one new license issued for every five licenses retired.
Most of the people on the waiting list already are fishing for a living, but they don’t work for themselves. They’re working as sternmen, second or third hands on someone else’s boat operating under someone else’s license.
DMR Resource Coordinator Sarah Cotnoir told a meeting of the Zone B Management Council last Wednesday that between 2012 and 2014, only two fishermen were issued new licenses off the waiting list in Zone B.
In that same period, she said, 31 young people received Zone B commercial licenses when they upgraded their student licenses to commercial ones, bypassing the waiting list.
“My son will fish before I do,” Josh Kane of Bar Harbor, one of the sternmen on the Zone B waiting list, said at the meeting.
DMR staff and legislators have been at work for several years on possible ways to speed up the waiting list while still protecting the limited entry system. At a community meeting in September in Ellsworth, Commissioner Patrick Keliher said he’d like the average stay on the waiting list to be about five years.
In January of 2014, the Zone B council did make a technical change intended to speed up the waiting list. They changed the “currency” for the exit ratio calculation from trap tags to licenses. Zone E, for example, is still using tags, so one new license is issued for every 3,000 tags retired. Under current rules in Zone B, one new license is issued for every five licenses retired.
At last week’s meeting, council members discussed switching from a 5-1 ratio to 3-1. Zone A to the east is using that ratio, and this year let 12 people in off the waiting list.
Zone B council members agreed they’d like to send a referendum ballot to all the fishermen in the zone to gauge support for the change. The law requires a zone council to wait 48 months after changing the ratio before proposing another change. It’s unclear whether the currency change triggers that required wait, but the council will likely finalize plans for the referendum when they meet next in February.
Horner said while there may be political pressure to change the ratio, he doesn’t see scientific reasons to do so. “You’re getting bombarded [with comments from] people on the waiting list,” he said to Representative Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle), who has proposed legislation to change the entry system, “but people who are happy with the system aren’t saying anything.”
A bill for this legislative session adjusting rules for lobster licenses is still being drafted by DMR staff, but an outline was provided at the meeting. Under the bill, all zones would use licenses as “currency” for entry/exit ratios, but the ratio number would still be up to zone councils to decide.
It proposes raising the age by which a student must have completed the student license program from “before the age of 18” to “before the age of 23” in order to get a license without going on the waiting list. That change would be made retroactive to anyone currently on the waiting lists meeting the criteria.
Other changes address “latency” in the fishery – the fact that many license holders report no landings at all or don’t fish as many traps as they’re allowed. The latency issue has no direct connection to the length of the waiting list except that the number of trap tags sold is the primary measure the DMR uses to determine fishing “effort” – how many traps are in the water – which in turn informs management decisions aimed at protecting a sustainable lobster population.
“I don’t think we need fewer fishermen in the zone,” newly elected zone council Chairman David Horner of Bass Harbor said. “I just don’t think we need more.”
For his part, Kane called the discussion of latency a “smoke screen” to distract from the issue of entry and the waiting list.
Kumiega urged fishermen to submit comments and/or attend public hearings when lobster licensing is discussed in the upcoming session of the legislature.
At the zone council meeting, members elected Horner chair. Jon Carter of Bar Harbor was elected vice chair and representative to the DMR Lobster Advisory Council. Richard Howland of Islesford was re-elected secretary. Other council members include Mark Bennett of Sorrento, James Bracy of Southwest Harbor, Christopher Goodwin and Scott Harper of Bernard, Wyatt Beal of Seal Cove and Jason Joyce of Swans Island.