STONINGTON — Maine’s recent election has brought a crop of first-time legislators to Augusta, among them lobsterman Genevieve McDonald who filed her first piece of legislation even before the new Legislature has been sworn in.
McDonald represents House District 134, an all-island district that stretches eastwards from Penobscot Bay to Mount Desert Island and includes the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont, the Cranberry Islands, Frenchboro, Swan’s Island, Isle au Haut, Vinalhaven, North Haven and, of course, Deer Isle and Stonington.
While she is concerned about the unique issues faced by residents on Maine’s “unbridged” islands, as a fisherman, McDonald has gone lobstering for 14 years, she is especially interested in the future of Maine’s lobster fishery. And no wonder.
In the 2017 Fisheries of the United States report published last week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, lobster was again the most valuable single-species fishery in the nation. Last year, U.S. landings of American lobster topped $550 million, with more than three-quarters of that — some $423 million — landed in Maine harbors.
According to the Department of Marine Resources, during the past five years, the leading Maine port in terms of the landed value of its lobster fishery has been Stonington with Vinalhaven in second place since 2104. Both towns are in McDonald’s district.
On Dec. 5, McDonald submitted her first bill to the 129th Legislature, “An Act to Encourage Youth Participation in the Maine Lobster Fishery.” The legislation remains to be drafted in final form, McDonald said, but its aim is “to help students without access to a fishing boat” learn what lobstering is all about.
Under current law, a youngster on a lobster boat isn’t allowed to handle anything unless they are counted as a sternman under the boat captain’s Class II or Class III lobster fishing license. “They can watch but they can’t touch,” McDonald said.
Her proposed bill would exempt a person 12 or younger from needing to be covered by the captain’s license in order to band a lobster, fill a bait bag or pull critters out of a trap.
The idea for the bill grew out of McDonald’s personal experience. In the winter, she works with young students in the Deer Isle school who are curious about the fishery that is a central feature of the community they live in but whose families are not engaged in lobster fishing. Many of those children have no easy way to get aboard a boat and actually experience what the fishery is really like.
That was brought home last summer, McDonald said, when she took her sister-in-law, Leslie Rice, and 10-year-old nephew Jackson out for a day trip on her lobster boat, Hello Darlings II. Jackson was excited to be aboard but “he couldn’t touch anything,” McDonald said. “He was worried about being caught.”
While acknowledging that enforcement of this rule doesn’t seem to be a Marine Patrol priority, McDonald said the current rule can be a burden for captains of smaller boats with only a single crew who would be “happy to take a kid out to band lobsters and learn about fishing,” but might have to leave their sternman at home while the child became the one helper allowed onboard under a Class II license.
As of last Friday, McDonald’s proposed bill had yet to be assigned a Legislative Document (LD) Number, required before it can be assigned to the Marine Resources Committee for consideration. Because it was one of the earliest bills filed, McDonald said, all that should happen “relatively soon.”
With any luck, it may well happen in time for Jackson to get his hands dirty aboard his aunt’s boat if he wants to next summer.