AUGUSTA — The legislature’s Marine Resources Committee heard six hours of testimony Feb. 10 on a bill proposing changes to the commercial lobster licensing system. Those offering testimony were split between support for and opposition to the bill, which will be taken up next in a work session of the committee.
The language was drafted by Department of Marine Resources (DMR) staff, but the bill officially was sponsored by Rep. Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle). Sen. Brian Langley (R-Hancock County) was one of several cosponsors.
In introducing the bill at the hearing, Kumiega recommended the committee strike one provision, the creation of a new “Class II Limited” license that would allow its holder to fish only 300 traps.
“Discussions since the bill was printed lead me to suggest that the committee consider … dropping the limited license concept for the time being,” he said.
LD 1503 also proposes changes to increase slightly the number of new licenses each year going to applicants from both the apprentice and student license programs, Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher explained in his testimony in support of the measure.
“This committee has wrestled with the limitations of the current lobster licensing system and attempted to identify sensible change for at least the past four years,” he said. The DMR estimates that 50-60 additional fishermen could be let in each year across all six waiting lists under the changes, but Keliher said there would still be a reduction in total license holders over time.
The proposal aims to balance the interests of three constituent groups, according to Keliher. First, some existing license holders are concerned that their fishing grounds are already crowded, current strong landings will invariably decline and adding more boats and traps to the fishery should be done very carefully. Second, there are some who are working toward a license under a student program, some of whom forego extracurricular activities or have even dropped out of school in order to complete the required hours by their 18th birthdays. Third, there are adults on waiting lists who have completed the same apprenticeship requirements as the students, but face long delays under the current system.
Several Deer Isle-Stonington High School students testified in support of the bill, saying a provision extending the student license program from age 18 to 23 would help them. Stonington student fisherman Hunter Eaton said he already has $50,000 invested in his lobstering business with his student license. He worries that if he doesn’t log enough fishing days before his 18th birthday, and Zone C switches to limited entry, “it’s going to all be for nothing.” The extension to age 23, he said, also will “make the young fishermen more experienced and able to run a boat safely and responsibly.”
In Zone B, which includes the waters around Mount Desert Island, some fishermen have been on the waiting list for 10 years. In most zones, many more new licenses have been issued to students than to apprentices on the waiting list, causing DMR officials and some legislators to worry about legal challenges to the system under equal protection rules.
Keliher said he had heard more support for the student program changes than for a change the exit/entry ratio “currency,” which would move the waiting lists faster. “Given the already significant disparity,” he said, “wherein students are able to gain immediate entry, while those at the bottom of the waiting list can expect to wait decades, I do not think it is defensible to further advantage only the students. To do so would almost certainly expose the entire system to legal challenge.”
“Protecting the student program is a high priority, but that inequity scares me,” Kumiega said of the “two track” system that divides students and adult apprentices. “We have all taken an oath to uphold the Constitution, and the difference in how this system treats people based on age doesn’t seem right.”
The Maine Lobsterman’s Association (MLA) came out against the bill. Executive Director Patrice McCarron said the group held a full-day workshop earlier this month to discuss their position.
“It’s not greed, it is legitimate fear of what the future of this fishery holds,” she said. “Our businesses do feel like they’re vulnerable.” Fishermen are concerned about some studies that may indicate a decline in the lobster population in the next few years.
McCarron said MLA members report seeing many areas more crowded over time. The “DMR’s downward trend [in license numbers] is not going to reflect that increasing effort” if latent effort is being activated. She said the zone councils are an important way to adjust fishery management to unique circumstances in different parts of the state.
She suggested the DMR investigate who actually is on the waiting list and find out if the people listed are still alive, still living in Maine and still have an interest in fishing. Some are already licensed in other zones.
MLA President David Cousens, a South Thomaston lobsterman, said he was involved in designing the apprentice program 20 years ago. “We’re light years ahead of other fisheries because we have provided for an entrance into our fishery. I think we’ve been very successful.”
He said extending the age for the student program “is a slam to people on waiting lists” and would “change the whole dynamic.” He noted the students testifying all were from Zone C, which is open to new entrants, and tension between apprentices and students is not an issue there.
“I have three sons that lobster, and I worry about the future more than anyone,” Cousens said. “I don’t want to put a lot of new entrants into a fishery that may not be the same in a few years.”