ELLSWORTH — The blowy weather that made lobster fishing a hard chance recently might well have been a blessing in disguise.
The wind and cold certainly have given shorebound Maine lobstermen a good chance to learn about the tempests engulfing their industry in the Legislature and the world of fisheries regulation.
Already beset by limits on how they fish — trap numbers, trawl length, the kind and strength of rope used for groundlines and buoy end lines are all regulated in the name of conservation or protecting endangered northern right whales — lobstermen are waiting to see what new rules regulators may impose on the fishery.
At the beginning of February, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission began work on changes to the current interstate lobster fishery management plan.
Although there is a ways to go before formal amendments are considered, the action is aimed at “reducing the number of vertical lines in the water in response to concerns about the North Atlantic right whale population and the potential impacts of whale conservation measures on the conduct of the lobster fishery.”
According to the ASMFC, the new rules will be aimed at reducing the number of vertical lines — buoy marker lines — in the water by as much as 40 percent. Among the mechanisms under consideration are stricter trap limits, seasonal closures of fishing areas and speeding up already planned trap reductions.
The good news, if there is any, is that regulators will “consider” actions already underway at the state and federal level — including trap limits and reductions — that have already reduced the number of vertical lines in the water.
In response, Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said, “With this proposed action, the board is entering uncertain waters. However, as the lead management authority for American lobster, we have a responsibility to ensure the viability of the lobster fishery.”
The situation is complicated by the role of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team and an upcoming “biological opinion” under the Endangered Species Act.
Given the economic and social significance of the lobster industry, the ASMFC highlighted the importance of ensuring that “the implementation of measures to conserve North Atlantic right whales takes place in a way that maintains the sustainability and culture of the lobster fishery.”
While regulators outside the state appear focused on curbing lobster fishing, the Legislature has been dealing with several bills aimed at making it easier, or at least quicker, to get a lobster license.
LD 314, introduced by Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor), would ease the requirements of the lobster license apprentice program by allowing prospective licensees to replace logbooks documenting at least 2,000 hours of sea time aboard lobster boats with proof that they landed at least 4,000 pounds of lobster before their 18th birthday and acquired 60 days at sea over two seasons.
The bill drew opposition from DMR, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and the Maine Lobstering Union, all of which argued the proposal would weaken the state’s apprenticeship program.
LD 28, introduced by Rep. Joyce McCreight (D-Harpswell), would require that a license should be issued to anyone who has been on the lobster license waiting list for at least 10 years and raised a passionate debate at a Feb. 5 Marine Resources Committee hearing.
Currently, several of the state’s regional lobster management zones have “limited entry” programs, implemented for conservation purposes some 20 years ago, that require a certain number of outstanding licenses or trap tags, be surrendered before a new license may be issued. The impact has been harsh.
In Zone G, at the westernmost end of the state one man testified, people have spent 16 years waiting for a license. He switched from lobstering with his father to bricklaying because of the wait.
The situation is bad, too, in Zone B, around Mount Desert Island. Joshua Kane of Bar Harbor testifies that he has spent nine years on the list working as a sternman and still has no license.
“My son was not born when I started fishing and he’ll get his commercial license (through the student license program) before I get mine,” Kane said.
Much of the concern about the waiting lists reflects the fact that young people can get a student license between the ages of 8 and 23 and, after completing their apprenticeships, get a commercial license for a limited number of traps at the age of 18 without going on the waiting list.
One concern for opponents to the bill is that its passage would create the perception that Maine isn’t serious about reducing fishing effort, a particular issue in light of concerns about whales.
Deirdre Gilbert of DMR said that, for the present, the department would recommend that the committee hold onto the bill until it becomes clearer what is happening with new whale protection rules.
On the bright side, LD 174, introduced by Rep. Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington), got an overwhelmingly positive reception. The bill would clarify the law to allow a person under the age of 12 to “assist” on a lobster boat. Although no one could remember a Marine Patrol enforcement activity, at least in theory a child who spends an afternoon on a family member’s lobster boat isn’t allowed even to pick up a lobster, let alone try to band one.
The bill appears likely to pass without opposition.