The Maine Lobstermen’s Association hopes this will be the year it gets relief from a 56-year-old federal restriction that limits what the trade group can say about the management of the state’s largest commercial fishery.
The association hopes the U.S. Department of Justice will lift a consent decree that it imposed in 1958 – the year after the group lost an antitrust lawsuit that alleged it was trying to set prices paid to lobstermen.
“The consent decree was a pivotal moment in the history of lobstering in Maine, which is an iconic industry,” said Nico Walsh, a maritime attorney in Portland. “It put every lobsterman on notice to change behavior, and that any violation would be taken seriously.”
The Maine Lobstermen’s Association started its efforts to have the consent decree lifted in 2010, said Patrice McCarron, the group’s executive director.
“We’re hoping to see that through this year,” McCarron said. “We don’t want to be vulnerable as an organization. We want to be able to advocate at the right level, so we were proactive and made a request to have the consent decree lifted.”
Removing the 1958 rules would give the association the freedom to weigh in on how the $340.7 million fishery in Maine is managed, including such information as the number of traps being used. Regardless of the consent decree, the Sherman Antitrust Act prohibits the group from discussing pricing.
“The consent decree has additional language that precludes us from talking about the (lobster) gauge length, changes to the lobster season, quota management systems. It crosses over into what we should be talking about for resource management,” McCarron said. “It’s so archaic.”
Since the association plays no direct role in the purchase or sale of lobsters, it is not involved in any of the practices that triggered the initial federal enforcement action, McCarron said.
Still, setting new limits on traps, limiting entry into the fishery or changing the size of lobsters that are legal to keep can indirectly affect the amount of lobster on the market. That could ultimately affect lobster prices, and impact more than 5,900 licensed harvesters.
In 2012, Maine lobstermen hauled a record 126.7 million pounds of lobster, up almost 21 percent from 2011. The average price per pound was $2.69 in 2012, down from $3.19 the year before. Data for 2013 is not yet available.
In the Portland area on Friday, lobstermen were getting about $3.25 to $3.40 a pound, dealers said.
In 1957, the U.S. government filed a complaint alleging that the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and its president, Leslie Dyer, had conspired to fix and establish a minimum price for live lobsters sold to dealers, to go on strike, and to stop catching lobsters until the minimum price was reached. The tie-up led to federal antitrust charges against the association, which led to a trial in U.S. District Court in Portland.
The final judgment permanently prevented the Maine Lobstermen’s Association or any of its members from fixing or maintaining the price of lobster, or reducing, curtailing or limiting the lobster catch.
Walsh, the maritime attorney, said he believes the effort to set aside the consent decree may be part of a larger effort by the association to gain pricing protection from the Sherman Act. Some industries, such as the milk industry, have won federal protection that makes it illegal to sell their product below minimum levels.
“I have to think there’s more to this than just the MLA wanting the flexibility to adjust seasons or trap limits or gauge sizes,” Walsh said.
The lobstermen’s association is working with the Crowell & Moring law firm in Washington, D.C. to get the consent decree lifted.
The Department of Justice did not return calls seeking comment.
Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: