August 14, 2011

So you want to be a lobsterman

There's a catch. Current rules make it all but impossible for some residents to secure a license, and the industry is divided on how that might change.

By Tom Bell
Staff Writer

SCARBOROUGH - When Howard Gray and his son Charlie harvest lobsters off Prouts Neck, Howard takes on the lighter work -- stuffing the bait bags and sizing the lobsters -- while Charlie operates the boat and hauls the traps.

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Howard Gray, 77, sits in the stern of his lobster boat while his son Charlie is at the helm. The law allows Charlie Gray, an apprentice who is on a long waiting list to get his own lobstering license, to fish on his father's boat as long as his father is aboard. "If I don't come out, he can't come out," says Howard Gray. The Grays have lobbied the Legislature for a change in the rules.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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Charlie Gray pilots the boat while his father, Howard, rests on the gunwale as the longtime lobstermen check their traps off the coast of Prouts Neck in Scarborough last week.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

WATCH A SLIDE SHOW of Howard and Charlie Gray at work.

Although they work close to shore, their 28-foot boat is exposed to ocean swells. Howard, 77, sometimes struggles to keep his balance. By the end of a shift, his hips are so tired he can't stand without pain.

He'd rather be home relaxing in an easy chair, he says, but retiring now would put his 46-year-old son out of work.

That's because Howard has a fishing license, and his son -- who has been on a waiting list for one since 2006 -- probably won't be eligible until at least 2017. Charlie cannot legally fish unless his father is on the boat with him.

"If I don't come out, he can't come out. It's quite simple," Howard said as he slipped rubber bands over lobster claws Thursday. "It's not right. A person should be able to come out and harvest. It's a natural resource that belongs to everyone in the state of Maine."

The issue of who gets access to Maine's $300 million lobster fishery is the subject of a long-simmering dispute that is getting renewed attention from the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage.

The central question is whether the rules governing lobster licenses should remain as they are -- open to residents under age 18 at little cost, but effectively off-limits to almost everyone else -- or whether anyone should be allowed to fish as long as he can afford to buy a license from another fisherman who has one.

Opening lobster licenses to the free market would give retiring fishermen a nest egg while opening up the industry to more people, say the supporters of free-market reforms. To keep corporations from buying up licenses, the state could stipulate that only residents who own and operate their own boats would be eligible.

Opponents say a free-market approach would make lobstering unaffordable for young people from traditional fishing communities. They say it's unfair to give one generation a windfall and burden another with debt.

The issue gained attention in March at the Maine Fishermen's Forum in Rockland when Norm Olsen, then commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, said lobster fishermen have been given a property right that is denied to other Maine residents.

"The average citizen of the state of Maine isn't allowed to go out and catch lobsters and make a living from them. Only the lobstermen are," Olsen told the gathering.

Olsen resigned last month, but LePage wants to examine whether the state should change the system, according to acting Commissioner Patrick Keliher.

"We need to take a fresh look at the system and see where the limited-access entry system has its failures," Keliher says.

With the support of the administration, the Legislature in May passed L.D. 1532, instructing the Department of Marine Resources to hire a consultant to conduct an independent cost-benefit analysis of the current system and compare it with how licensing is handled elsewhere. The study must be reported back to the Legislature by January 2013.

His role as commissioner, Keliher says, is to facilitate a conversation about the issue with the industry. In the end, no changes can be made without the approval of the Legislature, and it's unlikely that the Legislature will do anything without the consent of the politically powerful lobster industry.


While the current, 15-year-old system is designed to make it easy and inexpensive for teenagers to enter the fishery, increasingly tighter rules over the years have made it almost impossibly difficult for adults.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Steve Train, a lobsterman out of Long Island, wants the state to give fishing licenses to anyone who graduates from the apprenticeship program. That person would have to buy trap tags – permits for individual traps – from a licensed lobsterman.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Charlie Gray hauls crates of herring aboard his father s lobster boat, which is moored in the Scarborough River off Ferry Beach in Scarborough.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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Howard Gray fills a bait bag with herring.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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