AUGUSTA — A legislative committee voted unanimously Wednesday to toughen penalties on lobstermen who fish too many traps or use “sunken trawls,” as part of an industry-supported effort to crack down on lawbreakers.

“I do think this is going to get people’s attention and will hopefully make people realize that it doesn’t pay to cheat,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

Lawmakers are considering a suite of requests from the Maine Department of Marine Resources for more enforcement tools and tougher sanctions against violators in an industry worth more than $500 million last year. A bill unanimously endorsed by the Marine Resources Committee, L.D. 575, would allow DMR’s commissioner to order longer license suspensions for lobstermen who violate the laws on the first offense and, in several cases, permanently revoke the licenses of repeat offenders.

For instance, violators caught fishing more than the legal limit of 800 traps or fishing “sunken trawls” without marker buoys would face a minimum three-year suspension – up from the current one year – and could lose their licenses for up to 10 years. Removing or “scrubbing” the eggs from female lobsters would result in a minimum four-year license suspension, and “molesting” other fishermen’s traps could result in a suspension from two to six years. The current maximum for molesting gear is three years.

The proposed changes would also allow the department to permanently revoke a lobsterman’s license for a second offense of exceeding trap limits or fishing sunken trawls. DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher said those penalties were modeled after similar revocation standards implemented in Maine’s lucrative elver fishery, where eel prices of as much as $2,000 a pound fueled a Wild West-like atmosphere before tighter regulations were put in place.

“We went to higher than 90 percent compliance (in the elver fishery) when it was ‘two strikes and you’re out,’ ” Keliher said.

Along with the tougher proposed administrative penalties, Marine Resources Committee members also endorsed a related compromise on a controversial proposal involving GPS trackers installed on boats.

DMR had originally sought the power to secretly install electronic surveillance devices on boats without a warrant when the Maine Marine Patrol had “probable cause” of civil violations. Current law requires DMR to provide fishermen with 24 hours’ advanced notice before installing surveillance equipment for civil offenses, a list that includes such serious violations as fishing more than 800 traps or hauling another person’s gear.

But the Maine Lobstering Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine opposed the proposal on constitutional grounds, arguing that DMR’s commissioner – a political appointee – should not be allowed to order a warrantless search of private property.

On Wednesday, the parties agreed to essentially sidestep the constitutional issue by changing the following lobstering violations from civil offenses to criminal acts: fishing too many traps, using “sunken trawls” without buoys, hauling other people’s gear, or fishing the majority of traps outside of their designated zone. That would allow DMR to seek a warrant from a judge when it has “probable cause” without notifying the fisherman.

Kim Ervin Tucker, an attorney for the Maine Lobstering Union, said criminalizing those offenses will allow warrants “to go through the normal process … and we all agreed they need the ability to get warrants without giving 24 hours’ notice.”

The Maine Legislature downgraded those offenses from criminal to civil violations years ago in order to give DMR the ability to hand down stiffer administrative punishments than were being dealt by the courts. But Keliher and other supporters said they believe the longer license suspensions sought in L.D. 575 – combined with the threat of covert surveillance and DMR’s ability to impose administrative suspensions before cases go to court – will help deter bad actors.

Rep. Walter Kumeiga, D-Deer Isle, said losing a license for three years or longer would equate to the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars for many lobstermen.

“It needs to be done, and we’ll see how it is working,” Kumeiga, the co-chair of the Marine Resources Committee, said of the various changes. “But I hope it will make a difference.”

Territorial disputes, personal conflicts and vigilante justice have long been a part of Maine’s lobster industry, resulting in sabotaged traps, sunken boats and occasional violence. But those tensions have risen to new levels in recent years. Last year, lobstermen in the Swans Island-Stonington area reported losing more than $350,000 in gear during an intense “trap war” and one lobsterman’s boat was sunk at its mooring three times.

Maine lobstermen hauled in 130 million pounds of the crustaceans last year worth an estimated $533 million.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association actually proposed the lengthier license suspensions to DMR and is pushing to also limit violators to 300 traps, at first, when they finally get their licenses back. McCarron, the association’s executive director, said more than 60 percent of the organization’s members who responded to a survey supported the lower trap limit for previous violators. The combination of a suspension and lower trap limit is a “huge deterrent,” McCarron said, and there’s a sense in the industry that this is a “pivotal moment.”

“People are cheating – not a lot of them, but there is money to be made,” McCarron said. But he noted that the state risks creating a “house of cards” situation where the many lobstermen following the laws see cheaters profiting at their expense because the existing penalties do not have enough teeth.

“We’d have something in place, if this all passes, that might really give someone pause,” McCarron said.

The bills will now head to the House and Senate floors for consideration.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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