AUGUSTA – A state-run permitting program that helps Maine’s long-ailing groundfishing industry should be open to boats of all sizes, supporters of a bill to expand a so-called permit bank said Wednesday.

L.D. 939, sponsored by Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, would allocate $3.5 million in state money annually to the Maine Groundfish Permit Bank, established in 2010 with federal money administered by the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

At a public hearing Wednesday before the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee, the bill faced no opposition. Some in the groundfish industry and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association testified in support of it.

Alfond said his bill “will have real economic benefit by creating a mechanism to provide Maine fishermen access to additional groundfishing quota at affordable rates.”

Under the program, the state auctions off shares of its allotted annual catch of groundfish — 14 fish species including cod, haddock and halibut — to high bidders, who can lease permits at affordable rates to small-scale fishermen.

Under a federal agreement with Maine, permits go only to operators of vessels as long as 45 feet based in communities with populations of 30,000 or less, allowing more access to fish than they would otherwise have.

Any state money funneled into the system wouldn’t be subject to the federal boat-length restrictions, said Jeff Nichols, spokesman for the Department of Marine Resources, who said the department hasn’t taken a position on the bill.

Meredith Mendelson, deputy commissioner of the department, said 15 vessels were in the program in the 2011 fishing year, followed by 19 in 2012. A total of 45 boats were in Maine’s groundfishing fleet as of September.

Using state money, Maine could increase its quota, then make permits available to operators of vessels longer than 45 feet, like those of Allyson Jordan, manager of Jordan Maritime Industries in Portland.

In testimony, she said her business moved to Gloucester, Mass., six years ago, then moved back to Maine after Gov. Paul LePage was elected, promising a Maine that is “open for business.”

But Jordan said restrictions on vessel size make her boats ineligible for the bank’s help and exclude “the larger vessels the state of Maine is actively pursuing to bring their boats and businesses home.”

Much of Maine’s groundfishing industry has moved to Massachusetts. “This disturbing trend is straining communities, and putting our industries and our heritage at risk,” Alfond testified.

He said the Portland Fish Exchange, a nonprofit, quasi-public corporation that auctions fresh seafood, would be aided by an increase in catches landed there.

Bert Jongerden, the exchange’s general manager, said the 1 million pounds of fish now in the permit bank generate $4.5 million in economic activity in the state. He said the program provides “additional, but not enough, groundfish allocation for Maine-based vessels landing their catch in Maine.”

In 2008, the Portland Press Herald reported that while Portland’s groundfish catch dropped 50 percent from 2004 to 2007, landings in Gloucester, Mass., were stable, in part because of Maine boats moving there.

Maine is still the only New England state that bars ground fishermen from selling lobsters that get caught in their nets.

That lobster “by-catch” was the subject of a hearing on Monday in Augusta on a bill submitted by Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, to let trawlers sell those lobsters. She submitted a similar proposal in 2007.

In 2011, the 5 million pounds of groundfish landed in Maine were valued at roughly $5.7 million, the Press Herald has reported. By comparison, that year’s lobster catch was valued at $334.6 million.

By-catch is among the most divisive issues for Maine fishermen. Changing the law would be a lifeline to the groundfish industry, but lobstermen vehemently oppose it, saying the other fishermen will target lobsters if they’re allowed to sell them.

Though people associated with the groundfish industry support Alfond’s plan, it’s second in priority for many to Haskell’s bill.

“The by-catch bill is the one that produces volume,” said Alan Tracy, CEO of Vessel Services in Portland, which provides ice, fuel and supplies to fishermen. 

Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:
mshepherd@mainetoday.com

 

This story has been updated to correctly reflect the way Maine’s permit program is operated. Groups listed in an earlier version of this story hold federal groundfishing permits, but they don’t participate in the Maine program. It was a reporter’s error.