As the state reviews the rules for lobstering, local fishermen bemoan a system that has them on the outside looking in.

SCARBOROUGH – When the officials from the Department of Marine Resources roll into Scarborough next Wednesday on its 16-town listening tour on the state of the Maine lobster industry, two local, lifelong lobstermen won’t be there.

Two weeks ago, Robert “Skip” Carter of Scarborough sold his boat and quit the industry after 41 years.

“I sold out,” he said last week. “I’m done. I have had it. I can’t take any more.”

Meanwhile, fifth-generation fisherman Charlie Gray, also of Scarborough, forced to forego lobstering because state rules forbid him from hauling traps without his 77-year-old father at the wheel, will be out on the water for the first day of shrimp season instead.

“I almost wonder if they scheduled the meeting here for that day on purpose,” said Gray on Friday. “But I don’t really have a choice. My father has a bad hip and he’s lost his hearing, which is bad for equilibrium out on the boat. He can’t go out anymore. So, right now, I have no income at all.

“As an independent contractor, I can’t get unemployment,” said Gray. “Right now, I’m just sitting here twiddling my thumbs.”

Both Carter and Gray have been caught by the rules of Maine’s “limited entry licensing system” in fishing Zone G, which covers the waters from Kittery to Cape Elizabeth. Under the latest iteration of those rules, anyone who completes the state’s apprentice program under a student license before age 18 automatically gets a commercial fishing license. Everyone else goes on a waiting list, which turns over at a glacial pace given the teenage fast track and the limited number of traps allowed in the state.

A yearlong evaluation of the limited entry system, prepared by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and delivered to the Department of Marine Resources Nov. 30, is the reason for the series of public hearings, which began Jan. 7.

“It has been quite a year in the lobster fishery,” said Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher, referring to last summer’s headline-making glut. “Our goal is to engage the industry in discussions about all of the issues as well as the topic of the limited entry system.

“These meetings will inform the development of a department proposal for discussion with the Legislature,” said Keliher. In other words, he may have the governor submit an emergency bill sometime during the session of the Legislature now under way.

But Gray, who actually got Gov. Paul LePage on the phone over the issues – “My father and I each talked to him for five minutes,” he said, “and my father sat with his wife at a campaign dinner” – says the governor needn’t wait for Keliher.

“If the governor really cared about creating jobs like he says, he could put me to work tomorrow just by signing his name,” said Gray. “The commissioner could issue a license just like that on his authority.”

Still, the listening tour is meant to capture information on more than just how long it can take to get a commercial license. For example, Gray and Carter disagree on the owner/operator rule. Despite being unable to fish without his father aboard, and only having 15-20 years left himself, Gray agrees the owner should be on board, to keep large industrial concerns from buying up all the licenses. Carter, on the other hand, says he’d like to be able to keep a hand in the industry when he gets older by hiring out his boat and license.

Gray, 55, got out of the industry for a few years in the late 1990s to try driving a truck instead. When he decided lobstering was his true calling, good times or bad, he swallowed his pride and went through the apprenticeship program. He’s been on the waiting list for a commercial license since January 2006.

“If the rules had remained the same as they were then, when they let one person in for every two who gave up a license, or even if they’d grandfather those of us on the list at that time, I’d have been back to it years ago,” said Gray. “But they’ve changed the rules three times since then.”

One of those rule changes was the automatic licensing of teens, a program meant to maintain heritage in fishing families – somewhat ironic given Gray’s family history.

“I feel like I’m being punished, even though I’ve done nothing wrong,” said Gray. “It’s age discrimination is what it is, really. I’d sue the state if I could afford a lawyer.”

Jeffrey Quirk, also of Scarborough, is in a similar boat, so to speak. He left the lobstering industry in the 1980s to go work for Central Maine Power. Unlike Gray, Quirk loves his land job, but bought a boat and reapplied for his commercial license in 2009. He’s No. 40 of 59 on the waiting list.

Quirk has one son who is No. 34 on the list, although he’s since moved on to a career in the Coast Guard. However, another son, now 15, is likely in the apprentice program and likely to complete it before his 18th birthday. Unlike Gray, who was able to fish a set number of traps while his father was on board, Quirk contents himself at the five traps allowed at the hobbyist level.

Still, if his son gets a commercial license, Quirk could find himself in the odd situation of being apprenticed to his son as captain of the boat.

“The whole thing is kind of backward when you think about it,” he said.

“That’s why I’m probably going to go mow lawns,” said Carter.

His struggles in the industry date to 1999, when new limits cut his take 46 percent, from more than 1,400 traps to 800. At that time, he got out of the industry for a year, but then came back just in time to keep from losing his license. Fearing further trap reductions in his home waters, Carter moved his operations up the coast, although he continued to fish in the area where zones overlap, just north of Cape Elizabeth.

Because he lives in Scarborough, Carter soon longed for a return. Before quitting, he had waited since November 2005 to regain his commercial fishing license in Zone G.

“I just couldn’t take it anymore. The whole system is an abortion,” he said. “There are actually more traps in the water now than there were in 1999. They just socialized the thing – they took my traps away from me and gave them to somebody else is all they accomplished.”

The report Keliher is shopping acknowledges that landings doubled from 57 million pounds in 2000 to 105 million pounds in 2011. A more recent report shows that landings jumped another 18 percent in 2012, to 123 million pounds. Last year’s market glut actually saw a decrease into total value of the catch, down $3.7 million, to a total of $331 million.

Despite more lobster than ever reaching the dinner table, the Gulf of Maine report says, “the stock is healthy and fishing is occurring at a sustainable level.”

Gray says he could tell anyone that much, as he chafes over sustainability as a supposed reason for his inability to regain his commercial license. Even more galling, he says, are the number of licenses that are renewed each year but never used.

According to the Gulf of Maine Institute, of 4,933 commercial licenses issued across the state in 2011, 22 percent went unused. Of 2.88 million traps authorized by the state, 14 percent never touched the water.

This so-called “latent effort” does pose a risk to the fishery, says the institute report, given that 1.2 million lobster traps “could be actively fished right away,” between unused tags and new traps that could be “issued immediately to eligible fisherman.”

On average, 60 new commercial lobster licenses are issued each year, of which all but 14 go to graduating students. Those remaining go to people like Gray, Carter and Quirk.

Statewide there are 296 adult applicants up and down the Maine coast waiting for a commercial license. At the current rate, it will take “20 years or more” for the most recent applicant to get a license. At the head of the list for Zone G is a person from Kennebunkport, who’s been waiting since Sept. 16, 2005.

Charlie Gray, a fifth-generation fisherman from Scarborough, has been forced to stop lobstering because state rules forbid him from hauling traps without his 77-year-old father on the boat. The Maine Department of Marine Resources is coming to Scarborough next week as part of a series of meetings gathering information for possible legislation to change some of those licensing rules.   
Charlie Gray, 55, of Scarborough got out of the lobstering industry for a few years in the late 1990s to try driving a truck instead. When he decided to return, he went through the apprenticeship program. He’s been on the waiting list for a commercial license since January 2006.    The Maine Department of Marine Resources will conduct a public hearing on the state of the lobster industry and recommendations for the future at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 23, at Scarborough Town Hall.A closer look

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