Over the past month, I have written several pieces about the most recent legislative effort (LD 1097) to allow lobsters caught incidentally by groundfishers to be landed in Maine. At present, the practice is illegal in Maine and some Maine-based groundfishers choose to land their catch in Massachusetts as a result. It’s an incredibly controversial issue, and, in my personal experience, people’s very strong opinions tend to align with the type of fishing in which they are primarily engaged (although this is certainly not always the case).
For the most part, Maine fishers (aka lobstermen) who primarily target lobsters generally are against allowing lobster bycatch–lobsters caught accidentally in groundfishers’ trawl nets–to be landed in Maine. One of the most public and vocal voices against the effort allowing incidentally-caught lobsters to be landed in Maine has been the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. On the other side of the debate are groundfishers who are supported by the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) this year and the Governor.
With a unanimous late April vote by the Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Marine Resources, where the Committee voted down the LD 1097, it could be argued it’s all a moot point–at least until next year–but I have nonetheless continued to ask people engaged in various aspects of the New England fishing industry for their opinion on the subject during interviews. Last Saturday I spent a couple hours with Glen Libby of Port Clyde Fresh Catch, a fishers’ cooperative in Port Clyde, Maine. While we were discussing issues unrelated to LD 1097 (stay tuned for more from Fresh Catch), I asked Libby what he thought about groundfishers like himself landing incidentally-caught lobsters in Maine.
Libby responded to my question with a question: “What about incidentally lobster trap caught fish strung on bait lines or brought home for dinner?” Libby asked. “Should it be banned as well?”
While Libby was in favor of the Bill, he makes it clear his opinion is in no way vindictive–Libby is a groundfisherman afterall. “It just makes good sense for fish conservation,” he said.
Simple, Libby said. “Multiply the handful of fish caught in each trap by the number of lobster traps in the Gulf of Maine. That number is larger than what the fishing fleet from Maine is allowed to catch.”
But isn’t it illegal to land fishes incidentally caught in lobster traps? I mean aren’t they discarded over the side in the same way groundfishers discard incidentally-caught lobsters over the side if they are landing their catch in Maine?
Sure, Libby said. “It is currently illegal to ‘possess’ them, but, illegally putting them on bait lines or bringing them home for dinner is rampant.” Libby told me having a lobster on board a groundfisher’s boat is about the worst crime you can commit in Maine, but the same can’t be said about having a fish aboard a lobster boat. “I had little problem tossing lobsters back over the years,” he said, “but the thing that frosts me is that the ‘other fishery’ does not reciprocate. It’s very short sighted indeed.”
Libby is quick to point out that some who target lobster do in fact catch and release fish bycatch. “I don’t want to paint all with the same brush,” he said. To Libby, however, the two ‘crimes’ are not viewed the same, and that is a big problem. “Having illegal fish should carry the same weight [as having illegal lobster],” he said.
“I guess banning draggers from keeping a very small part of a 360 million pound biomass of lobsters is good conservation, but illegally keeping struggling fish stocks is no big deal.” The frustration was evident in his voice. “Kind of a one way street, yes?”
Libby acknowledges that enforcing the law when it comes to incidentally-caught fish is “almost impossible to enforce,” but he believes awareness needs to be raised. “Peer or market pressure from customers aghast at [the practice of keeping fishes caught in lobster traps] would help in some instances, thus reducing the fish kill.”
Keep in mind I asked Libby the question about LD 1097–this is not something on which he is dwelling. While he thinks it’s ridiculous the law is the way it is and that this Bill failed to advance this year, he is focused on the much larger picture when it comes to what is best for the fishery.
“Ultimately we need some real no fishing zones that are carefully crafted,” he tells me. “Not just to groundfish boats, but to all fishing, including traps, midwater boats and recreational boats. Everything.”