Recent changes in the way new lobster fishing licenses are granted in the Mount Desert Island area should help reduce the backlog of 59 aspiring lobstermen waiting to enter the fishery. However, changing the ratio to one new license for every three surrendered (it had been 5-1) will not bring a major improvement in the situations of those who have waited nearly a decade for a license yet are still only halfway to the top of the list.
Other recent legislative tweaks, such as mandating that the wait lists be “cleaned up” by requiring confirmation of interest every three years, are better than nothing but still leave the wait agonizingly long.
There is one major change, however, that the legislature could set in motion that would clear up the backlog in short order. According to the latest studies, some 20 percent of the state’s more than 5,000 lobster fishing licenses are inactive. The holders retain them but do not actually engage in fishing.
Requiring the surrender of those licenses, say after a latency period of two years to account for illness or other unpredictable life events, could free up nearly 1,000 slots. The current waiting list statewide is around 300 people, so even at a ratio of one new license for every three surrendered, the backlog would disappear quickly.
At the very least, it would create a sense of hope that being on the waiting list is worthwhile. As one Bar Harbor lobsterwoman recently noted, at the current rate, she will not qualify for her own license until she is 64 years old.
The politics of the issue, however, are not so simple. Maine fishermen purchase nearly 2.9 million lobster trap tags annually. No small number of those tags are for traps owned by inactive license holders. That means the actual current fishing pressure is much lower than the total of tags would suggest. Adding another half-million active traps with the stroke of a pen to those already being fished could have far-reaching environmental and economic consequences.
Maine lawmakers in past years have made it easier for young people in the student apprentice program to become full-time fishermen. But for those out of school who wish to make lobstering their life’s work, there currently is little hope of being able to strike out on their own.
The image of the independent lobsterman is considered iconic on the Down East coast. Fishing for a living requires commitment, hard work, sacrifice and perseverance. Ensuring that those who are inclined to live that life are not prevented bureaucratically from doing so should be a top priority.