Maine has a fairly complicated system for limiting entry into the lucrative lobster fishing industry. As presently constructed, some would-be fishermen might wait a decade or more for the chance to have a license of their own.
Currently, more than 300 people are waiting. No new licenses are issued in many lobster management zones until someone surrenders one.
In other zones, entry is based on the number of trap tags that are surrendered. All traps must be tagged, with a maximum of 800 in the water at any one time.
Nearly every fisherman buys the maximum number of trap tags annually even though they fish far fewer. Worried that the state may one day reduce the maximum, many fishermen purchase as many tags as possible to be safe. At 50 cents per trap, per year, that’s cheap insurance.
But while hundreds of people wait for a license, state records show that 20 percent of lobster license holders report zero landings in any given year. Out of 4,600 lobster fishing licenses, about 920 holders didn’t even go fishing. That’s three times the number of people waiting to get in.
A certain percentage of fishermen undoubtedly drop out short term to deal with illness, family problems or even to serve in the military. But it is clear that hundreds are holding onto licenses just as an economic backstop or for the sake of ownership.
Some are not yet ready to admit they are at the end of their careers – reluctant to give up a tradition they and their forebears have embraced their entire working lives. Another possibility is that some are holding out hope that, like Canada, the state will one day allow holders to sell the licenses. Each license theoretically could generate a payday worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Still others hope for legislation that would permit licenses to be handed down within families.
As officials in the Maine Department of Marine Resources ponder ways to make the lobster fishing license system more fair, they may wish to consider a provision that any full-time license holder who reports fewer than 1,000 pounds in annual landings, for two consecutive years must surrender his or her license.
In the event of a protracted illness or military deployment, provision should be made to reinstate the license.
Officials already admit that the number of tags issued does not correspond to the number of traps being fished. But because every license holder theoretically could fish the maximum, the tag count is the only hard number available concerning how many traps are in the water.
Those on the waiting list are spending far too long in limbo. The existing rules stifle entrepreneurial spirit, dampen economic activity in a state that can ill afford it, and prevent fresh energy and vitality from entering into a major industry. Lawmakers and regulators need to establish a fair and reasonable path for lobster fishing license entry.