It can take years for someone to move off a waiting list to become a commercial lobsterman in Maine, and for years fishermen have been trying to figure out a way to make the licensing process work while protecting the health of the lobster population.

Now a bill that aims to accomplish both goals appears to be headed for a fight when it goes before the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee on Feb. 10.

The bill, if enacted, probably wouldn’t have an impact on lobster prices or consumers, especially in the short term. But it could affect who gets some of the roughly 5,800 commercial lobster licenses available statewide. It also could make a difference in areas where lobstering is the major industry or where the population of lobstermen is older.

“People who live in struggling coastal communities care about this,” said Rep. Walter Kumiega, D-Deer Isle, sponsor of the bill and House chairman of the Marine Resources Committee.

The core issue is how to protect the state’s lucrative lobster fishery, which is in the midst of a boom even as the fishery has drastically declined in southern New England. In Maine the lobster haul reached 123.6 million pounds – worth a record $456.9 million – in 2014, the latest year for which statistics are available.

Kumiega’s bill, which emanated from the office of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher, seeks a number of tweaks. It is the result of years of discussion by lobstermen and state officials about a decades-old system that seeks to limit the number of people who are allowed to fish for lobsters as a way to keep the lobster population healthy.

“The idea was there were too many fishermen, too many traps and too much effort. We are trying to slow it down,” said Robert Baines, a lobstermen out of Spruce Head and a member and former chairman of the Lobster Advisory Council, a statewide group.

The result of the discussions was a complicated set of rules governing who can enter the fishery without going on waiting lists maintained in all but one of the state’s seven lobster fishing zones. The northern zones allow entry based on the number of licenses retired annually, while the zones to the south base entry on the number of traps retired annually.

Currently, entry rules statewide require all potential fishermen to complete an apprenticeship. They are then placed on a waiting list, except for students up to age 18, who automatically receive a license after completion of the apprenticeship. One zone – Zone C in the Penobscot Bay area – is open and allows anyone who has gone through the apprenticeship program to get a license without any waiting.

Kumiega’s bill would increase the age from 18 to 23 before someone is put on a waiting list.

“We have situations where people come in a week after their 18th birthday with all their paperwork and instead of getting a license they go on a waiting list,” said Kumiega.

Troy Plummer, 20, of Boothbay, is No. 31 on a list to enter the fishery in his area.

“Only one person got off the list last year,” said Plummer, who figures it will be 30 years until he gets off the list at that rate.

There is a backlog of nearly 300 people on the waiting list for a license in Maine, and some of the fishermen have been on the list for more than a decade, years after completing a required apprenticeship, The Associated Press reported.

Another tweak in Kumiega’s bill would require all zones to switch to a system based on the numbers of licenses retired annually instead of traps, a proposal that rankles Maine’s independent-mind lobster fishery. Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, which represents about 1,200 fishermen, said lobstermen see the bill as undermining the authority of the seven lobster zones, which represent geographically distinct fisheries with different issues.

“People are worried about the Legislature telling them you have to use this tool to accomplish their goal. It is a pretty slippery slope to have the Legislature saying everybody in the state is going to do the same thing,” McCarron said.

Sheila Dassatt, executive director of the Downeast Fishermen’s Association, which has about 300 members, said that although her members already base entry to the fishery on the number of retired licenses, they want to keep the zones autonomous.

“Let the zones take care of the zones,” Dassatt said.

Baines said there are just too many problems in the bill, even though he does not disagree that the lobster fishery entry system is broken. But Baines said anything done to fix the system will increase the amount of fishing, and the lobster population cannot sustain any increase.

“It is a quagmire. All we do is tangle with each other,” he said.

Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

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