PORTLAND – The last thing the state’s stressed fishing industry needs is high costs, so the Maine Fisherman’s Cooperative is offering at least a small break to try to lure boats back to Maine.

The cooperative, which is going out of business, is using most of the proceeds from its investment in a fuel and ice company to provide rebates covering Maine’s 5 percent tax on diesel marine fuel.

The $30,000 program will likely provide aid to only several dozen vessels, and the money isn’t expected to last more than six months, said Terry Alexander, a boat owner and president of the cooperative.

“But it’s something,” said Alexander, who noted that the cooperative is dissolving because most fishermen now belong to groups that focus on fishing specialties, such as groundfishing, shrimping and lobstering. “We wanted the money to go back to the industry, because the industry is what made us,” Alexander said.

The fuel tax is one reason that fishermen are increasingly taking their catch to Massachusetts ports, such as Gloucester or Boston, where there is no surcharge, he said.

A bigger reason is that Maine bans the sale of lobsters scooped up by groundfishing boats that drag their nets along the ocean floor. In Massachusetts that lobster “bycatch” can be sold, and can net a fishing boat several thousand dollars on each trip.

But the fuel tax remains an irritant, Alexander said, and has helped cause the number of fishing boats that unload in Portland to dwindle from 350 to 400 a decade ago to about 70 now.

Alexander, who was in Boston on Tuesday because one of his boats operates out of that port, said there were five or six Maine fishing boats within sight of his vessel.

Capt. Dana Hammond, whose Nicole Leigh operates out of Portland, said he burns about 25,000 gallons of fuel a year, and the tax rebate could save him close to $2,000 if it runs for six months.

He noted that Maine eliminated the tax for a year, in 2007, after a task force identified it as one reason Maine was losing boats to Massachusetts ports. But the tax was reinstated, Hammond said, and the exodus of boats has continued.

Bert Jongerden, general manager of the Portland Fish Exchange, said the tax is one piece of “an unfriendly business climate for the fishing boats here.”

He said fishing boats create jobs, for their owners and crews and for businesses on shore that sell ice and fuel for the boats or make repairs.

Ironically, he said, many of the fish landed in Massachusetts ports by Maine boats are trucked to Maine for processing.

The rebate program — which is open to boats that land fish at the Portland Fish Exchange and then buy fuel at Vessel Services within 10 days — is a “worthwhile thing” that might give some fishermen second thoughts about taking their catch to Massachusetts, Jongerden said.

Alexander said the money for the rebate program comes from the Maine Fisherman’s Cooperative’s sale of its stake in Vessel Services, which is the chief supplier of ice and fuel for fishing boats in Portland.

He said he hopes the privately funded effort might prompt the state to eliminate the tax again.

“I hope the state of Maine does see it and says, ‘Maybe we should do something,’ ” he said.

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]