AUGUSTA — Maine-based groundfishing boats catching lobsters in federally regulated waters will likely continue to sail under the threat of up to a $50,000 fine, after a vote Tuesday in the House.
The House voted 106-38 to defeat a bill that would have removed state-assessed penalties on Maine fishermen catching lobsters in federal waters and landing them in other states. The proposal, L.D. 1549, was billed by supporters as a last-ditch effort to keep about a few dozen groundfishing boats in the state.
The bill was designed to ensure that the groundfishing fleet can keep the lobsters that come up in trawl nets and sell them in states that allow such lobsters to be landed. Critics of the bill fear that it would lead to further loosening of restrictions on sales of incidentally caught lobsters, a practice that the lobster industry fiercely opposes because of concerns about its impact on the state’s most valuable fishery.
Tuesday’s vote in the House aligned with last week’s 28-7 vote in the Senate to defeat the bill. Both votes broke largely along regional lines, with many Portland-area lawmakers voting to remove the penalty provision and lawmakers elsewhere voting to defeat the bill.
The support from Portland lawmakers reflected the fact that the remainder of Maine’s groundfishing industry, and its infrastructure, is primarily based in the port of Portland. James Odlin, who owns and operates three groundfishing boats in Port-land and two in Massachusetts, is one of the dozen or so fishermen who would benefit from the bill. Odlin has also pushed for other bycatch legislation, including a proposal sponsored by Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, that would have allowed Maine trawlers to land and sell lobster bycatch in Maine.
Haskell also sponsored L.D. 1549.
The Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee had endorsed an amended version of the bill, 7-6, on May 22. However, some committee members who supported the bill then flipped their votes on Tuesday.
Rep. Jeremy Saxton, D-Harp-swell, was one of them. Saxton said he had heard from many lobstersmen who opposed the bill. Opposition among the lobster industry steadily increased after the committee held a public hearing and passed the bill on the same day.
Many lobstermen said the bill was a foot in the door for future efforts to increase bycatch in Maine.
Maine now prohibits sales of lobster bycatch, as does Canada. The state also penalizes commercial vessels licensed in Maine for landing or storing lobsters in Area 3, a federally regulated zone that extends from Maine to the mid-Atlantic states and begins about 40 miles off the Maine coast. The penalty can be as much as $50,000, although the Department of Marine Resources told the Press Herald that the penalty is rarely assessed.
Commercial boats licensed in other states may keep lobster bycatch in Area 3.
Supporters of the bill said the threat of hefty fines could prompt the state’s remaining groundfishing boats to leave for out-of-state ports. Odlin sounded the same warning for his remaining boats during the May 22 public hearing.
Opponents countered that the bill would do little to save the industry but could further threaten a lobster fishery that remains the backbone of the state marine economy.
Maine’s groundfish fleet comprised about 350 boats in the 1990s. It had about 70 boats in 2012. The catch has shrunk over that period, from 44.8 million pounds worth $33 million during the 1990s to 6.6 million pounds worth $6.2 million in 2009.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: email@example.com