As legislators work on a plan to provide millions of dollars to market and promote Maine lobster by adding a surcharge to licenses, some lobstermen are balking at paying for an advertising campaign that they say will take money out of their pockets without giving them much in return.

“We are being forced, extorted, in an advertising scheme that we don’t benefit from,” said Nelson King of East Boothbay, who has been a lobsterman for more than 50 years.

“Advertising directly benefits the dealers’ market,” he said, so the campaign wouldn’t affect prices that lobstermen get for their catch.

Lobstermen already provide about $350,000 a year to the Maine Lobster Advisory Council’s budget for promotion of Maine lobster, through a surcharge on licenses.

The new proposal would change the method of funding the promotional budget by dramatically increasing surcharges on all licenses. That would allow a huge increase in the council’s budget, to $3 million over three years. A separate bill would add a one-time, $1 million appropriation.

In addition, the council would be reorganized and its membership would be increased from nine to 13, with 11 members appointed by the commissioner of the state Department of Marine Resources.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association and the Downeast Lobstermen’s Association have endorsed the proposal, but some lobstermen oppose license surcharges, which would vary by the type of license and whether it is for harvesting, processing, selling or transporting the catch.

The Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee is scheduled to take up the bill outlining the changes, L.D. 486, at a work session Wednesday.

Officials in the Department of Marine Resources said Monday that there is wide support in the industry for the changes.

“The commissioner heard loud and clear, through the 16 meetings in January, held up and down the coast, that there is broad industry support for the surcharges and what they will accomplish … which is improved marketing,” said Jeff Nichols, director of communications for the agency.

For many lobstermen, a surcharge that is $62.50 this year would rise to $187.50 in 2014, then jump to $375.50 in 2015. The surcharge would jump again from 2016-2018, to $487.50.

After that, the success of the program would be evaluated and the surcharges could be maintained, increased or decreased, as deemed necessary by the Legislature.

Some fishermen aren’t convinced that more promotional money will produce the promised results of new and bigger markets, or that any returns will trickle down to them.

“The government has no business in the business of lobster fishing,” said Matt Parkhurst, a lobsterman from Boothbay. “They should butt out. Their job is to make sure we don’t overfish the resource.”

So far, there is no detailed plan for how the money would be used for market development or advertising for Maine lobsters. The proposal would allow a new, as-yet-unnamed, council to contract with public agencies or private companies to design and implement promotional strategies.

But King, in East Boothbay, said the reputation of Maine lobster already speaks for itself.

He said the fishermen are the ones who have done the work to sustain the fishery, and it’s their attention to conservation — not a promotional board’s — that has paid off.

“I do not believe that the Lobster Promotion Council can do anything of note to convince the world that Maine lobster is the best,” he said. “That word is out already. Have you ever heard someone in a restaurant ask for one of (the) Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire or Canadian lobsters?”

Officials with the Maine Lobstermen’s Association could not be reached for comment Monday.

In testimony this month before the Marine Resources Committee, Executive Director Patrice McCarron said Maine must invest to create new markets and increase demand nationally and globally for its leading fishery.

“The Maine lobster industry is experiencing record high catches and record low boat prices,” McCarron told legislators. “If we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep getting what we always got. And that is simply not good enough for Maine’s most valuable fishery.”

That’s a matter of opinion, say opponents of the proposal.

Preliminary reports on the 2012 lobster season indicate that more than 126 million pounds were landed by Maine lobstermen, at a value of nearly $339 million.

Those figures reflect a record catch — a glut, say some in the industry — and the largest annual value ever for the state, but the lowest price per pound since 1994.

“They’ve used the idea of a glut against us,” King said.

He said that while the price was low, none of the catch went unsold.

“And believe me, the price didn’t go down on a plate in New York,” he said. “We (harvesters) have no direct benefit from this. None.”

Lobstermen who oppose the surcharge say they object to increasing the promotional budget at a time when they face higher costs for fuel, bait, traps and rope.

“It’s way too much,” said Andrew Kenny, a lobsterman who has fished for 20 years out of East Boothbay. “This will just be the first step. It’s a never-ending cycle. The cost of doing business is strangling us.”

Opponents also say that the retail price of lobster is still high, even while wholesale prices fall. They remain unconvinced that a marketing campaign would significantly increase the price per pound, or the total value of the industry and related services, estimated now at nearly $1 billion, according to McCarron.

“It’s the accountability factor,” Parkhurst said. “We’ve been paying in for 20 years, and where’s it gotten us? I’m just so frustrated. … Where’s the accountability?”

This story was updated at 5:34 p.m. March 26 to correct several errors. Because of inaccurate information provided to the newspaper, the story misstated the source of the Maine Lobster Advisory Council’s $350,000 promotion budget; the money comes from surcharges on license fees. Also a proposed increase in surcharges would raise the promotion budget to $3 million over three years; a one-time, $1 million allocation from the state’s general fund is proposed in a related bill. Further, a proposed bill is unclear about the entity that would oversee the design and implementation of promotion strategies; that responsibility would fall to a new, as yet unnamed, council. Because of an editing error, the story inaccurately said that officials with the Maine Lobstermen’s Association did not return phone calls; a spokeswoman said no one was available to comment Tuesday. 

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