AUGUSTA — The battle over fishing grounds that pits fishermen from Lobster Management Zone B against those in Zone C made it all the way to the Maine State House last week during a hearing on two bills that aim to even the playing field between the zones.
On the docket for the Marine Resources Committee hearing were two bills sponsored by Rep. Brian Hubbell (D-Bar Harbor).
Hubbell proposed LD 149 and LD 616 on behalf of the Zone B fishermen he represents, many of whom are at odds with fishermen from neighboring Zone C to the west.
Tensions between lobster license holders who fish on the B-C border came to a head last summer when a trap-cutting war resulted in vandalism to and losses of gear estimated by the Marine Patrol to be worth more than $350,000.
To Zone B fishermen, that tension stems from the fact that Zone C was until recently wide open. Anyone with a lobster license who wanted to fish in the zone could. Zone B is a limited-entry zone, meaning one commercial fishing license is issued for every three forfeited licenses.
Because state regulations allow up to 49 percent of a fisherman’s gear to be set in a second zone, that left Zone B with crowded fishing grounds along the border.
In LD 149, a “concept bill” that lists a string of potential solutions to overcrowded waters, Hubbell suggests repealing the second-zone tagging system altogether so that new license holders would be allowed to fish only in their declared zone.
The bill also suggests lowering the double-tagging limit to allow just 25 percent of a fisherman’s gear to be fished in a second zone.
“There are more Zone C tags fishing in Zone B than there are Zone B tags,” Hubbell said during his testimony. “These two bills simply seek to use some tools to rebuild that parity.”
He said the damage to gear and tensions from crowded fishing grounds need solutions.
“These issues create real conditions of hardship and require real deliberation,” he said.
Several Zone B lobstermen testified in support of Hubbell’s bills but said they would want the rule changes to apply only to zones B and C and not all lobster management zones. Many said they feared if no action is taken, the issues between the zones would only get worse.
“There are a lot of different approaches to the issue, said Jason Joyce of Swan’s Island, who sits on the Zone B council and the state’s Lobster Advisory Council. “Since 2010, Zone C has had a net gain of 67 licenses; and Zone B has had a net loss of one. [Zone B accounts] for one out of 25 tags that can go into Zone C and they account for one out of five tags that can go in Zone B.”
He said there are currently about 30,000 Zone B tags and about 67,000 Zone C tags.
Joyce also brought up another reason those in Zone B take issue with the double-tagging provision: they allow those in Zone C to fish in a second zone before fishermen on the Zone B commercial license waiting list can.
“It’s not fair to someone in our zone who is on the waiting list when others who haven’t apprenticed here come in and make an impact on our fishery,” he said.
Opponents of tighter limited-entry oversight say it would destroy access to historical grounds that cross over into both zones where families have fished for generations.
“Most seem concerned that historical fishing grounds are going to change,” said Zone B Councilman Adam Lawson. “All of these tags coming into our zone are displacing Zone B fishermen from where they have historically fished. They are being pushed out by overabundance of gear. Why do we have to feel the brunt of a zone that was mismanaged?”
Department of Marine Resources Commissioner (DMR) Patrick Keliher testified against Hubbell’s bills.
“The impetus for these bills is a gear conflict that has been occurring between Zone B and Zone C,” Keliher said. “DMR estimated conservatively that over 3,500 traps worth $350,000 have been destroyed.
“This is the longest-running and most expensive trap war we’ve seen the last several decades. I am extremely sympathetic to reasons this legislation was brought forward, and each one of the options presented has its own challenges for people and families that have fished across two zone lines.”
The commissioner said the DMR is concerned that the bill as written applies to all lobster management zones and not just zones B and C. He said forgoing double-tagging for new licensees “would prevent further generations from fishing their historic grounds.”
Keliher said that the only option to alleviate the issue would be for Zone B to lower their trap tag limit, which is now set at 800. If the limit were lowered, it would apply to both Zone B and Zone C fishermen.
Zone C fishermen shared their opposition for Hubbell’s bills.
“This bill pits Zone B against Zone C, and we’re hoping you will see this will be an unnecessary hardship up and down the coast,” said one Zone C fisherman and Maine Lobstering Union (MLU) member.
Others said the proposals would be detrimental to their livelihoods.
“I think this could be catastrophic for all of us,” said Zone C fisherman Ben Weed. “It’s going to push us on top of people where we have not usually fished, and it will snowball. I don’t know what the answer is, but this isn’t it.”
A few asked why the whole of Zone C should be punished for the wrongdoing of just a few fishermen.
“Zone C is not the issue, it is that a few individuals have made it miserable for Zone B fishermen,” said Zone C fisherman Richard Larabee. “They don’t respect the industry …, and keeping Zone C out of B is not a logical problem. We will all have to pay the price, and that is not right.”
A committee work session will be scheduled to tweak the language of the bills before the committee decides if they should move forward to the full Legislature.