STONINGTON — There’s another battle brewing in Maine’s lobster industry, but this is one that likely will be fought in the Legislature rather than on the water.
Out to about 12 miles offshore, Maine waters are divided from east to west, into seven Lobster Management Zones. Lobstermen are required to declare which of the zones they will fish in based, generally, on where they live.
Six of those zones have waiting lists established under the state’s “limited entry” law, of people who have completed a state-mandated apprenticeship program and want a license to fish for lobster in the zone. The number of new licenses available each year depends, in eastern Maine, on the number of licenses surrendered each year. In western Maine, new issues are based on the number of trap tags surrendered. Every licensed commercial lobsterman is entitled to fish up to 800 traps, each of which must be marked with a plastic tag purchased each year from the Department of Marine Resources.
In some of those zones, the waiting list, and the waiting times for a new license, are extremely long.
In Zone D — around western Penobscot Bay — there are 59 on the list, which stretches back to November 2005. In Zone B, around Mount Desert Island including Frenchman Bay over to Schoodic Point, the waiting list includes 55 names and stretches back to May 2005.
With decade-long waits for a new license (the shortest list contains 28 names and dates to 2007,) fishermen on the list have been pressing Governor Paul LePage and their state legislators, and the Governor and the legislators have been pressuring the Department of Marine Resources to develop a new limited entry system with what DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher described last Monday as “a predictable time frame” for people waiting for licenses.
Keliher was at Deer Isle-Stonington High School speaking to about a dozen fishermen at the first of eight “community meetings” he has scheduled with lobstermen around the state. Meetings are scheduled for Machias on Tuesday, Sept. 22, and Ellsworth on Wednesday, Sept. 23.
The meeting was informal, with Keliher and several DMR staff engaging in some discussions on topics extending well beyond the issue of limited entry.
Deer Isle and Stonington, the state’s busiest lobster port, are located in Lobster Management Zone C. Fishermen in that zone, which stretches from Cape Rosier, down the middle of eastern Penobscot Bay on the west and from Newbury Neck down eastern Blue Hill Bay on the east and includes North Haven, Vinalhaven and Deer Isle, have opted not to limit the number of new licenses that can be issued in their zone each year.
That’s an idea that Keliher apparently endorses, although it isn’t popular in much of the state.
“Frankly, I prefer to see the zones open and more fishermen, not less,” he said.
“Maybe instead of closing a zone, let’s be a little more selective about how we let fishermen into a zone,” said Virginia Olsen, the Stonington-based secretary-treasurer of the Maine Lobstering Union.
The apprentice program requires that a licensed lobsterman certifies the number of training hours amassed by an apprentice. A minimum of 1,000 hours — 200 fishing days — is required to complete the program.
According to Olsen, the captains of some lobster boats may be abusing the apprentice program by “supervising” several apprentices at the same time.
The issue of what to do about waiting lists is complicated by several factors, Keliher said. One is what DMR describes as “latent effort.”
According to department records, more than 500 licenses are held by lobstermen above the age of 70. Many of them, Keliher said, likely fished fewer than the maximum 800 traps they were each allowed. In addition, about 1,000 licensed lobster fishermen had no lobster landings last year.
If they all surrendered their licenses, hundreds of thousand more traps than are fished currently could go into the water and, Keliher said, many fishermen feel that there are already “too many traps in the water.”
According to Keliher, between 2008 and 2014, Zone C was the only zone in the state to have an increase (11) in the number of licenses issued, and the number of trap tags increased by 6 percent.
Over the same period, lobster landings in the zone increased 113 percent, and the landed value increased 115 percent.
“It’s all very positive,” Keliher said.
According to the commissioner, there is some sentiment in Zone C to close the area to new licensees. He urged fishermen to delay making any decision before they see what kind of plan DMR develops over the next few months.
The aim, Keliher said, is to come up with a comprehensive overhaul of the licensing system and to file it as a “Governor’s Bill” when the Legislature returns to work next year.