Today the Maine House voted 106–38 to defeat L.D. 1549, “An Act To Provide an Exemption for Incidentally Caught Lobsters.” This vote follows Friday’s 28-7 vote in the Senate against the same bill, further eroding any possibility the state Maine will relax its position this legislative season on how Maine lobsters are caught and brought to market.
L.D. 1549 is the second effort this year sponsored by Senator Anne Haskell to bring relief to Maine’s groundfishing fleet by allowing groundfishers to land lobster accidentally caught in their trawl nets. The first bill, L.D. 1097, a bill that would have made it legal to land incidentally caught lobsters in Portland, Maine, was unanimously voted down by the Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Marine Resources in late April.
A Compromise Bill
Haskell says she viewed L.D. 1549 as a compromise bill. The Bill would have allowed groundfishing vessels registered in Maine to land lobster bycatch without penalty in states where the practice is legal. Maine is the only state that does not currently allow incidentally caught lobsters to be landed, and this bill would have kept it that way, while still providing some economic benefit to Maine groundfishers who are struggling under new fishing quotas that have cut their total allowable catch by almost 80 percent in some cases.
At present Maine groundfishing vessels that do land incidentally caught lobsters legally in states such as Massachusetts face up to a $50,000 fine from the state of Maine. This penalty is, according to proponents of L.D. 1549, providing incentive for Maine’s groundfishers to leave the State and register their vessels and businesses in Massachusetts. Haskell went so far as to warn that Maine risks losing its groundfishing industry altogether if L.D. 1549 does not passed.
Maine’s Most Valuable Fishery
Lobster is Maine’s most valuable fishery, and much of the state’s lobster industry is dead-set against any move to loosen restrictions on how lobsters are brought to market in the State. At present, the Maine lobster fishery is exclusively a trap fishery, and that is, according to some, an essential part of both the brand and the industry’s claim to being a sustainable fishery. Opponents of L.D. 1549, L.D. 1097 and other efforts to relax restrictions on the fishery believe these initiatives, while potentially beneficial in the short term to groundfishers, are ultimately the beginning of a slippery slope that will harm the resource and the brand.