L.D. 1549, An Act To Provide an Exemption for Incidentally Caught Lobsters, is the next in a long line of legislative initiatives aimed at saving Maine’s groundfishing industry in the face of drastic quota reductions and a dwindling fleet. The bill, which contains an emergency clause, would allow Maine groundfishers to, without penalty, land lobster bycatch in states where such landings are legal. Like other bills that have looked to change existing regulations in the lobster fishery, this bill has both fishers and lawmakers split over the best way forward.
Incentive for Maine Groundfishers to Take Their Catch Elsewhere?
In Maine, it is currently illegal to land lobsters caught unintentionally in trawl nets used to target groundfish species. This law has provided incentive to send some Maine groundfishers south to Massachusetts, where incidentally-caught lobsters can be sold legally. Because a Maine-licensed commercial fishing vessel can be fined by the State of Maine up to $50,000 for landing lobster bycatch in Massachusetts (or anywhere else in Area 3), there are concerns that Maine groundfishers will increasingly license their boats and move their business out-of-state. Maine is currently the only state in New England where landing lobsters caught incidentally in federal waters is illegal.
L.D. 1549 is sponsored by Senator Anne Haskell, a democrat representing part of Portland and Westbrook (District 9). Earlier this session Haskell introduced L.D. 1097, a bill that would have made it legal to land incidentally caught lobsters in Portland, Maine. That bill, although having the support of Governor Paul LePage, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR), was unanimously voted down by the Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Marine Resources in late April. L.D. 1549 is seen by its proponents as a compromise approach.
Many Lobster Fishers Offer Vocal Opposition to L.D. 1549
Some of the most vocal opponents of any activity that would loosen regulations of the lobster fishery are Maine lobster fishers. Maine lobster fishers, who catch lobsters in traps, argue that opening the door even a little to increased drag fishing for lobsters could have longterm negative consequences for the fishery. Dragging has been shown to be detrimental to the longterm viability of the lobster fishery, and several prominent scientists agree there should be no loosening of the regulations insofar as lobster bycatch is concerned.
While many Maine lobster fishers express concern about losing the Maine groundfishing fleet, they also point out that now is the wrong time to in any way “harm the brand.” In recent years, several individuals and groups have worked hard to build a strong brand around Maine lobster. Sustainability is a big part of that brand-building initiative, especially with Marine Stewardship Council certification as part of the equation. As one lobsterman told me, “There ain’t nothing sustainable about dragging for lobsters.”
Some Say Bigger Issues Need to be Addressed
Some groundfishers, like Glen Libby of Port Clyde Fresh Catch, point out that there are also sustainability issues with the lobster fishery. “Multiply the handful of fish caught in each trap by the number of lobster traps in the Gulf of Maine,” Libby told me in an interview earlier this month. “That number is larger than what the fishing fleet from Maine is allowed to catch.” Libby would like to see additional regulatory measures taken across all fisheries in the best interest of the resource. “Ultimately we need some real no fishing zones that are carefully crafted,” Libby says. “Not just to groundfish boats, but to all fishing, including traps, midwater boats and recreational boats. Everything.”
L.D. 1549 was endorsed by the Committee on Marine Resources last week and is being edited into its final form presently. The bill could see a preliminary vote in the Senate as soon as next week.