The lobstermen of Stonington and Vinalhaven, the busiest lobster ports in Maine, have voted to close their waters to additional fishermen, preferring that newcomers wait for others to leave before dropping traps there.

Almost three of every four local lobstermen who voted in a referendum this summer supported the adoption of a waiting list system. The majority included many of the small island communities that had previously opposed making newcomers wait for lobster licenses out of fear that it would discourage people from moving to their far-flung communities.

Of the nine districts within the regional lobster zone, only one, the district that includes Matinicus and Criehaven, voted against making newcomers go on a waiting list. Results show that local lobstermen of all ages, license types and business size support the closure.

The election results now go to the local lobster council for consideration Sept. 8. If the council approves the closure, its recommendation will go to the commissioner of the state Department of Marine Resources, Patrick Keliher, who makes the final determination.

Approval would make permanent a temporary closure implemented in June, when the council voted to put the waiting list question to the 936 licensed lobstermen in the zone. It had been the last of Maine’s seven lobster zones to allow newcomers to fish without a wait.

Other regional councils had previously voted to close their fishing zones and make qualified applicants wait, sometimes for as long as a decade, to get their own lobster licenses.

OTHER ISSUES BESIDES CLOSURE

The local lobster council, which presides over what is called Zone C, also asked its members to weigh in on what to do about people who had completed most of their apprenticeships at the time the vote was conducted. Sixty percent of the local lobstermen who voted supported the idea of grandfathering applicants who had completed 92 percent of their apprenticeship duties – or 920 hours of training and 184 days of work – at the time of the vote, which would excuse them from going on the waiting list if they complete the program.

If the council approves a permanent closure, it also will have to decide how many people need to leave the industry before it allows entrance to any new qualified applicant. Most zones require more than one license holder to leave before someone new can come in.

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Some who cast ballots in the summer election asked for a one-to-one license trade, and others wanted as many as three or five license holders to leave before a new person could join the fishery. Some wanted applicants who had been raised locally to get a shorter route to licensing than new residents.

The 375 lobstermen who cast ballots weren’t shy about their thoughts on the vote. The Department of Marine Resources included some of the comments, although it did not identify the fishermen who wrote them, in a spreadsheet it compiled to document the election results in advance of the upcoming lobster council meeting.

The comments showed the deep division within the tight-knit community about the benefits and drawbacks of adopting the waiting list, and the disagreement over how many people should have to leave the industry before granting any new fisherman a license.

“Something needs to be done,” one pro-closure lobsterman said. “It’s way too crowded.”

“Everyone in Zone C should be grateful for all the open years,” another lobsterman wrote.

“If you would stop the part-timers and the summer people from having traps in the ocean, then the lobstermen who wait all winter for the lobsters to come would be able to make a living,” one wrote. “These part-timers have other jobs!”

“We can’t get a trap up or down without a snarl now,” a pro-closure lobsterman said. “We can’t fit any more traps in the water. Close it, please.”

SUPPORT FOR AN OPEN ZONE

But that passion was matched by those who want to keep the zone open, despite their smaller numbers.

“We live on an island,” said one lobsterman who voted against creating a waiting list. “If you take away job opportunity to the young folks, this community will suffer.”

“This country is supposed to be a free-enterprise country,” complained another. “This is just another example of government taking away people’s rights.”

Over the past two decades, the lobster population in the Gulf of Maine has doubled to an estimated 250 million adult lobsters, even as the fishermen's catch has tripled. Regional councils in six of the seven Maine fishing zones already make qualified applicants wait, sometimes for as long as a decade, to get their own lobstering license and enter the business.

Over the past two decades, the lobster population in the Gulf of Maine has doubled to an estimated 250 million adult lobsters, even as the fishermen’s catch has tripled. Regional councils in six of the seven Maine fishing zones already make qualified applicants wait, sometimes for as long as a decade, to get their own lobstering license and enter the business. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“Landings are high, so why take away from new fishermen’s opportunities?” wrote one lobsterman who voted against closing the zone.

“Everyone who puts the time in and has been a longtime resident of Maine deserves an opportunity to obtain a license,” another wrote. “Closing the zone will make it harder for someone from a non-fishing family to obtain a license.”

After years of debate, the local lobster council has tried to put the issue to a vote twice before, but the meetings have fallen through. Some council members who serve from the islands have walked out of meetings when a vote loomed that they believed would close the zone. They have worried that a cap on the number of licenses would eliminate an incentive for adult children to return home to the island, where lobstering is one of the few available jobs.

Mainlanders contend that the zone is too crowded as it is, and say outsiders have moved here just to exploit the lucrative fishery.

HUNDREDS DON’T USE LICENSES

The coastal waters of Maine are split into seven fishing zones, lettered A through G, that stretch from the Canadian Maritimes to the New Hampshire border. Lobstermen must do 1,000 hours of training over 200 days as an apprentice to a licensed lobsterman from the zone where they live, and will fish before they can apply for a state license. In all but eastern Penobscot Bay, or Zone C, apprentices wait years for a spot to open up.

Maine has 7,280 licensed lobstermen, each assigned to a zone based on their home address, but not all of them are traditional commercial fishermen. About 5,000 set a full run of 800 traps and may employ a sternman or two. Some hold a license for recreational lobstering, or have an apprentice, student or over-70 license. About a thousand of those license holders don’t land a single lobster in a single year.

This last group of license holders, who want to keep their papers even though they are too old to fish, concerns some lobstermen when considering a waiting list system.

“What about on the other end?” one pro-closure lobsterman asked. “Men/women who are retired but keep fishing. Some people in (their) 80s still have licenses.”

“Everyone that is purchasing a license just to keep it shouldn’t be able to keep it without showing landings,” one pro-closure lobsterman said. “Unfair to new entrants!”

But a keep-it-open lobsterman wrote: “I think you should buy back retired licenses from older people that don’t fish.”