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

(Continued from page 1)

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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.

As the law works now, young fishermen can automatically qualify for a fishing license by completing a two-year apprenticeship before reaching their 18th birthday. An apprentice license costs $65 for someone under age 18 and $132 for anyone 18 and older. The program requires apprentices to pass a boating safety course and fish with a licensed fisherman for at least 1,000 hours and 200 days.

Applicants age 18 and older must also complete an apprenticeship. They then must wait for a certain number of trap permits, or tags, to be retired, and a certain number of fishermen to give up their licenses -- the number of each varies by fishing zone, but the wait lasts for years in almost every zone.

Charlie Gray's situation illustrates how the current system keeps adults out of the fishery.

A fifth-generation lobsterman, he fished from age 12 until he was in his early 30s, when he gave up his license during a time when the fishing wasn't particularly lucrative so he could take a job driving a truck.

He returned to fishing in 2003 and began the process of getting his license back. That meant becoming an apprentice for two years under his father, who sponsored him. As an apprentice, Charlie must have his father on the boat with him at all times.

They fish in Zone G -- waters between the New Hampshire border and Cape Elizabeth.

In 2004, with just two months left in his apprenticeship, he says, the fishermen in Zone G changed the rules to require that five fishermen leave the fishery for every one who enters. The previous rule was that two fishermen had to leave for every one who entered. Fishermen in each zone decide many of the rules that determine who can get a license there.

Subsequently, the rules were changed again to require that 4,000 trap tags be retired before a fisherman on the waiting list could get a license.

The rules, which are similar in the other zones, are designed to limit the overall number of traps and fishermen while keeping the fishery open for young people.

There are 52 people on the waiting list in Zone G. All have completed their two-year apprenticeships.

In 2010, two fishermen on the list received licenses, and in 2011 another received a license. Charlie Gray, who is now No. 5 on the list, figures he'll get a license in 2017 or 2018.

He says fishermen who already have licenses have set the rules to keep the fishery to themselves.

"They've got the place cinched up," he says. "They don't want to allow people in."

Jodie Jordan, a Cape Elizabeth fisherman who sits on the Zone G Lobster Zone Council, says he is sympathetic to Gray's plight, but there is nothing the council can do about it.

"You let one in, you've got to start letting everybody else in," he said.

The same issue occurs in five of six other zones. At the current rate, people placed on a waiting list this year in those zones will have to wait eight to 26 years to receive a license. The only exception is Zone C, in the Penobscot Bay area, where lobstermen have opposed limits on the number of fishermen.


The industry appears to be divided over the issue. In eastern Maine, where obtaining a commercial lobster license is one of the few avenues to earning a middle-class income, many lobstermen defend the current rules because they ensure that their children and other young people in their towns can get a license at minimal cost.

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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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