SOMERSWORTH, N.H. – The ruckus over the departure of Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Norm Olsen, largely due to Maine’s blanket ban on netted lobster bycatch, is a Pyrrhic triumph of politics over economics.

The state clings to a prohibition which has virtually no impact on lobster conservation, while raising unemployment and threatening Maine’s fragile working waterfronts.

Groundfishermen — using trawl and other net gears — catch lobsters along with groundfish, skates,and other types of fish. Federal law restricts them to a retaining 100 lobsters per fishing day, and a maximum of 500 per fishing trip.

In 2009, netted lobster bycatch added about 5 percent to New England groundfish vessels’ revenue — with no additional costs of production. As any business owner in this economy will attest, 5 percent can easily be the difference between profit and loss.

Expatriate Maine groundfish vessels — vessels which departed Maine to escape the bycatch ban — landed perhaps 125,000 pounds of bycatch lobster last year. Meanwhile, Maine’s trap fishery landed nearly 95 million pounds. This colossal imbalance renders spurious all economic arguments against netted lobster landings.

The expatriates’ contributions to the annual catch are trivial (roughly what Maine lobstermen hauled every 12 hours in 2010), and in fact are far less than the natural variation of several million pounds seen each year in Maine’s trap fishery. They are further overshadowed by the 100 million pounds of lobster imported from Canada to the United States each year.

Netted lobster landings have no perceptible impact on the price of lobster.

Similarly, netted lobster would have no impact on Maine’s “brand.” Consumers would be hard pressed to find a netted lobster even if they asked for it by name. Netted catch is controlled and fully accounted for in the lobster fishery management plan, which is touted as a model of sustainability.

Groundfishermen have played a game of Twister trying to accommodate the lobster industry. They have agreed to restricting bycatch to lobster caught dozens of miles off the coast, adhering to Maine’s unilateral maximum lobster size limit, enhanced catch monitoring and reporting, restricted offloading sites, a catch cap to ensure lobstermen are guaranteed at least 95 percent of all landings, annual legislative review, sunset provisions — even a requirement to transport netted catch outside of the state to ensure it doesn’t compete with trap-caught lobster sales in Maine.

Portland Mayor Nick Mavodones recently met with Gov. Paul LePage, asking that the administration take a fresh look at Maine’s prohibition on netted lobster catch. The mayor correctly estimated that the rule has cost Maine’s economy around $40 million over the last several years.

Economist Charles Lawton calculated that the state’s bycatch ban has cost Maine at least 350 jobs. All that economic activity has simply moved down the coast to other New England states, which adhere to federal bycatch law.

In spite of the clear economic gain for no pain, state government is paralyzed by the politics of the problem. The governor effectively allowed a few vocal lobstermen to oust Olsen. Apparently the ex-commissioner’s pledge to industry and the Legislature of candor and fact-based resource management was not as welcome as some industry members initially claimed.

The acting commissioner now claims, “It would be irresponsible for the state to try to drive something that is so contentious,” a peculiar (though politically prudent) position since the state implemented the law in the first place.

And the Blaine House, berated by a fraction of Maine’s several thousand lobster fishermen, is beating a hasty retreat from earlier promises to level the regulatory playing field with neighboring states.

As Gov. LePage said, “It’s time to get Maine working again, and that means tearing down the roadblocks that establishment politicians have built over the past 40 years.”

This particular roadblock has cost Maine hundreds of jobs and tens of millions of dollars. Bycatch lobsters will always be netted. The debate is merely where they should be landed: in Maine or in Massachusetts. It’s a simple problem with a painless solution.

The governor didn’t create the problem, but it will not be fixed without his advocacy.

– Special to the Press Herald