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 2)

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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.

Allowing fishermen to sell their licenses would provide current fishermen with an unearned cash windfall -- they didn't have to buy their licenses on the open market -- but make it much more difficult for children from families of modest means to get into the fishery, said John Drouin of the Washington County town of Cutler, who is chairman of the Zone A Lobster Zone Council.

Drouin has a stepson and a son, ages 14 and 15, who already have commercial fishing licenses and operate their own 20-foot boat.

Based on the market value of licenses to trap lobsters in Nova Scotia and in U.S. federal waters -- different rules apply to obtaining licenses to lobster in offshore federal areas -- the price of a license in Maine would cost $50,000 to $100,000, he says.

"Where would they come up with that kind of money to buy a piece of paper for the right to go fishing?" he asks.

Allowing lobstermen to sell their licenses would result in many fishermen becoming "sharecroppers" for whoever provided the capital to buy the permits, said Robin Alden of Stonington, who was commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources when the apprentice program was instituted in 1996.

She says the apprentice system was designed to fit the traditional fishing culture in Maine, where expertise is passed down through families, and those who own the lobster boats are the ones doing the fishing.

Still, she acknowledged, the growing waiting lists are a problem. She says she hopes that the state conducts a "holistic" study of the system that considers other solutions besides allowing fishermen to sell licenses.

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, says she doesn't know of a single lobsterman who wants to make money by selling a lobster license if doing so would make it harder for young people in his or her community to join the fishery.

"People want a way for kids to get into it," she says. "You don't have to be rich to get into the lobster industry. You have to work hard and build your way in."


In southern Maine, where the fishery is less profitable and there are other economic opportunities for young people, more lobstermen support allowing licenses to be transferred.

In the May newsletter of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, Long Island lobsterman Steve Train proposed that fishing licenses be made available to anybody who graduates from the apprenticeship program. The only catch is they would have to buy trap tags -- permits for individual lobster traps -- from a licensed fishermen.

"I think that concept is more fair to everybody," he says. "It treats everybody the same -- regardless of age."

Lobstermen would be allowed to buy and sell the tags, but the state could set limits on the overall number of tags being used. Current rules limit Maine lobstermen to 800 trap tags.

Train says his proposal would use the free market to open up the fishery while at the same time protecting the resource, because regulators could more easily regulate the number of traps in the water.

Because lobstermen in the current system pay only a nominal fee for trap tags, many lobstermen buy more tags than they need. They hold on to them so they have a cushion in case the state imposes more restrictions on the number of traps people can use, for example, requiring each lobster fisherman to reduce the number of tags they are using by a certain percentage. Likewise, fishermen keep their lobster licenses even if they have stopped fishing so they can maintain their fishing rights.

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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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