KENNEBUNK – Maine’s lobster industry is one of the few truly sustainable fisheries in the world.

Currently, the Maine Legislature is considering a bill to dismantle one of the pillars of lobster conservation by allowing lobsters caught in trawl gear to be landed at the Portland Fish Exchange.

This bill would weaken Maine’s longstanding lobster conservation plan and undermine the industry’s efforts to expand the marketing and branding of Maine lobster by associating it with a lower-quality, less sustainable product.

Furthermore, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association strongly believes that it will not save Maine’s groundfish industry or the Portland Fish Exchange.

The lobster industry’s stewardship practices reflect the sacrifices and tough decisions made by previous generations of lobstermen. These lobstermen had the foresight to put strict conservation practices in place to ensure a robust fishery for future generations.

Maine lobstermen are required to fish only with traps and to protect baby lobsters, breeding females and oversized lobsters by returning them back to the sea unharmed. The Marine Stewardship Council awarded the Maine lobster fishery its prestigious sustainability certification in recognition of these practices.

It is difficult to comprehend why the state Legislature would entertain changing harvesting methods to ones that are known to be less sustainable than the current standard.

The MLA believes that lobster should only be caught with traps, and has always opposed the existing federal allowance that permits trawlers to take 100 lobsters per day or 500 lobsters per week.

This so-called bycatch allowance is abused by some draggers who set their trawls directly on lobsters in order to land their full allowance. By contrast, Maine lobstermen are not permitted to land any groundfish incidentally caught in their traps.

Lobster traps are a passive gear that allow lobsters to move freely in and out, and retain only a small percentage of those that enter. Egg-bearing and reproductive females are less likely to enter traps. By contrast, a trawl towed by a dragger is active gear that catches any lobster in its path.

Each time lobsters are caught in a trawl, their claws or shells can become broken or damaged. Pregnant female lobsters may lose their eggs. Longer-term impacts resulting from the stress of being snagged and mauled in trawl nets are not known.

The current bill is also troubling because it targets offshore lobsters. These lobsters are largely left alone by Maine lobstermen, because of their inability to intensively fish such a broad area with traps.

Female lobsters produce increasing numbers of eggs with each year of life; harvesting large lobsters and breeding females could have a negative impact on lobster reproduction over time.

Maine needs a strong, vibrant groundfish fleet to help sustain our coastal economy and preserve our fishing heritage. But the future of the groundfish industry hangs on much more than its ability to land lobster. In 2004, the Governor’s Groundfish Task Force made more than 30 recommendations to stabilize and improve the state’s fleet. None suggested repealing the law forbidding draggers to land lobsters in Maine ports.

State and industry leaders should be looking to give the groundfishing fleet a boost with solutions that don’t require dismantling a cornerstone of lobster conservation. There are many other questions yet to be answered.

How many additional pounds of groundfish would actually come to the Portland Fish Exchange if the proper incentives were in place? And why aren’t some of the 126 million pounds of trap-caught lobster currently landed in the state sold through the exchange now?

If one of the overarching goals of this bill is to save the Portland Fish Exchange, it seems Maine’s existing lobster fishery has a lot to offer. Trading lobster in a public auction in fact could help the lobster industry by fostering competition and adding transparency to lobster pricing.

The MLA supports Maine Senate President Justin Alfond’s proposal to use state funds to purchase federal groundfish permits and thus provide Maine’s groundfishing fleet access to more fish. This measure could benefit all of Maine’s groundfish vessels, both inshore and the larger offshore boats.

This action is just one example of a constructive, rather than destructive, approach to improving the health of the fleet.

We need strong leadership to create a business-friendly environment for Maine’s groundfish fleet and implement a suite of incentives attractive to these businesses. Short-term economic gains for one sector of Maine’s fishing industry do not justify sacrificing the long-term sustainability of another.

– Special to the Press Herald