AUGUSTA — Lawmakers on the committee that handles marine resources issues voted Wednesday to make modest changes in the rules that control lobster fishing licenses in Maine, side-stepping a more controversial proposal for access to Maine’s most lucrative fishery.
Members of the Marine Resources Committee voted 11-1 to increase the age for young people to finish a required apprenticeship program, and to take steps to verify the validity of hundreds of names on a license waiting list. The action was a compromise between attempts by the Department of Marine Resources to trim the waiting list without hurting the resource and resistance from established lobstermen, who were opposed to what they saw as a loss of control and the potential for overfishing.
“It’s not a giant change,” said Patrick Keliher, the marine resources commissioner, “but it will redefine the list and make it smaller.”
A spokesman for many fishermen, however, said he would have been happier if nothing was changed.
“It could have been worse,” said David Cousins, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
Interest by the state in reforming the licensing process has been building for years, but has repeatedly failed under pressure from the industry. The department’s initial proposal was crafted after four bills that dealt with license changes were killed in the last legislative session.
After consultation last year with fishermen, the department came forward with a plan that would have created a new class of license to help cut down a list of nearly 300 people waiting for a license to fish for lobster. The list was created 16 years ago, after regulators began limiting entry into a fishery with a long tradition of local control and industry-led conservation efforts. But some residents complain that they’ve on the list for up to 10 years and have no indication when or if they’ll become eligible.
The department’s bill would have created a new, limited lobster and crab fishing license for a reduced number of traps; increase the age from 18 to 23 before someone is put on the waiting list after completing the industry’s apprenticeship program; and remove special fees for applicants age 70 or older.
But at a work session last week, several members of the committee expressed skepticism about the proposal. They said it wouldn’t do much to cull the waiting list, but could have unforeseen consequences on a fishery that has posted record landings.
Roughly 123 million pounds of lobster were landed in 2014, with the value of the catch at nearly $457 million, a record. Regulators and the industry do not believe that those landings will continue, amid concerns for warming ocean temperatures and other biological changes.
Beyond that, it was clear from the turnout at a public hearing earlier in the month, where opponents of the bill outnumbered supporters 2-to-1, that any new limited license idea wouldn’t gain traction.
Acquiescing to that reality, the department came Wednesday with smaller proposals that Keliher said would improve the parity between students and apprentices without increasing the number of licenses and trap tags.
After two hours of discussion, the committee endorsed changes that give young people more time to complete the mandatory apprenticeship program before they can obtain a license, by boosting the age from 18 to 20 and making it contingent on earning a high school diploma or equivalent. Applicants also can complete the program up to age 23, if they are enrolled at least half time in an accredited school. The idea behind these changes is so young people don’t feel forced to sacrifice an education, in a rush to put in the time needed to complete the apprenticeship program.
Another change would give the state’s seven lobster management zones a new option of how to calculate so-called exit ratios, based on the highest number of trap tags purchased by a retiring fisherman. The exit ratio is used to determine how many new fishermen are allowed in each zone.
The changes also aim to “clean up” the waiting list, by determining who really wants to remain on it. At least once every three years, the department will send a mailing to all residents on the list. If they don’t respond, they’ll get a certified letter, and if that’s not answered, their name will go to the bottom of the list. Exceptions will be made for people in active-duty military service.
The lobstermen’s association had been pushing for getting a better handle on the waiting list and see if some applicants have died or moved away. Data from 2012 indicates 29 percent of lobster licenses weren’t used that year.
The latest changes come at a time when management of the resource is under intense scrutiny, as warming waters in the Gulf of Maine cause ecological changes that aren’t well understood. Lobster populations in southern New England have virtually collapsed, for instance, while they’ve remained stable in southern Maine and grown Down East.
Any management changes are important, because the lobster has become a global brand and an identity for Maine, as well as a source of income that helps sustain some coastal communities.