AUGUSTA — A proposal to increase the cost of commercial fishing licenses to fund scientific research in a lean budget year is drawing fire from Maine lobstermen.

Julie Eaton, a 30-year lobster boat captain from Deer Isle, told a legislative panel at the State House on Friday that a 30 percent increase in lobster license fees would be too much on top of all the other costs of doing business, ranging from $125 to replace lost traps to $185 for monthly oil changes to bait bills that have doubled in the last year alone.

“Lobstermen already feel a huge squeeze financially to stay in business,” Eaton said. “You can start to see how expensive it is to go to haul.”

The Maine Department of Marine Resources is seeking to increase lobster license fees about 30 percent, which would generate roughly $600,000 in new revenues. That money would be used to expand state lobster research and protect other department units, like the Maine Marine Patrol, despite budget cuts ordered by Gov. Paul LePage to offset the anticipated effect of a new minimum wage law and state school spending initiative.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association and Maine Lobstering Union agree that the Department of Marine Resources needs to increase its lobster research program to protect the species at the heart of the state’s $1.5 billion lobster industry, but they don’t think the fishermen should have to fund it. They claim the industry has paid its fair share toward research over the years, and that now it is time for others to step up.

The lobstermen’s association, which is the state’s oldest and largest lobster group, wants the state to reject LePage’s proposed cuts to the DMR budget and fully fund all of its efforts, including scientific research and marine enforcement. The department has struggled for years to pay enough to recruit new officers to the Maine Marine Patrol.

“In this time of unprecedented change in our ocean and our fishery, the state of Maine cannot afford to undercut the DMR’s ability to do its job,” said the association’s director, Patrice McCarron. “Given the importance of the lobster fishery to the state of Maine, we should be here discussing how to enhance the DMR’s efforts rather than undercut them or increase fees from the industry.”

Each dollar earned by a lobsterman generates several more within local communities that often host little other industry besides lobstering, McCarrron said. Lobstermen spend their earnings on meals at local restaurants, gas for their trucks and boats, and new traps, boats and homes, she said. These fishermen already pay $1.5 million out of trap tag fees to fund the Marine Patrol, lobster science and management, she said.

FANCY LOBSTER PARTIES

If the state doesn’t want to cover the DMR budget shortfall, Eaton said the Maine Lobstering Union has another solution – take it out of the $2.7 million in lobster license fees that currently goes to fund the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, which was created in 2013 to promote the brand and increase the demand for lobster beyond state borders.

The collaborative replaced the Lobster Promotion Council, a smaller group that had been in place since 1991 and had a much smaller budget of $350,000. The latest incarnation of the marketing group was formed after a lobster glut in 2012 sent prices plummeting, and harvesters, dealers and others connected with the industry decided to invest in expanding the market for Maine lobster.

Eaton said the marketing collaborative has had little impact on a lobsterman’s bottom line. The license surcharge that went to the collaborative has funded fancy lobster parties, where chefs trade recipes and learn how to eat lobster, but it hasn’t made life any better for lobstermen like her, Eaton said. That is why the union thinks Maine should scuttle the agency when its legislative mandate ends in 2018, if not before, she said.

It’s a criticism that is commonly heard Down East, where the collaborative’s “new shell” marketing campaign doesn’t sync with that area’s shedder season. In Zone A, which is the lobster management zone that covers Schoodic Point east to the Canadian border, the average boat price for lobster has dropped in 2017, according to the zone’s council chairman, John Drouin, a veteran lobsterman from Cutler.

“The lobster marketing collaborative is a nicety, it is not a necessity,” said Kim Tucker, the union’s attorney. “Scientists studying the impacts of global warming in our warming waters in New England and the Gulf of Maine, that’s a necessity. We do not want to see scientists cut so that the lobster marketing collaborative can have lobster dinner after midnight in Atlanta.”

WHEN THE BOOM ENDS

The Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee and Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee considered the DMR’s proposed budget at Friday’s hearing.

Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said the department only resorted to license fee increases after making other cuts, such as closing a library and seasonally shuttering a lab that held specimens destined for the state aquarium. He acknowledged that most lobstermen opposed the increase, but he said that others will admit privately that the price of a license is still reasonable.

Under the proposed increase, a lobsterman with two sternmen would have to pay $1,002 annually for a license, or $114 more than the $888 it will cost in 2017. That’s not including the cost of trap tags, which are 50 cents each and would not go up under the proposed budget. Most fishermen set 800 traps, the most allowed under state law, which would cost another $400 to even begin to fish.

Not everyone in the lobster industry opposes the proposed lobster license fee hike.

The Maine Lobster Dealers Association called it a small sacrifice needed to expand the department’s woefully underfunded research capability. The association’s director, Annie Tselikis, said the fishing industry and the state are dependent on lobster, which accounts for 81 percent of Maine’s commercial landings, but are not preparing for that day when the current lobster population boom ends and the historically high lobster landings drop.

“I hope we never see that day, but if there is a shift, we need to be able to plan for it, not be caught by surprise,” said Tselikis.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at:

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