AUGUSTA — An effort to reduce waiting lists for entry into the $457 million lobster fishery is running into concerns that a proposal to create a new class of license would put more pressure on a lobster population that the industry and regulators agree is already “fully exploited.”

The proposal, drafted by the Department of Marine Resources, is designed to reduce the nearly 300-person waiting list, which was established 16 years ago after regulators began limiting entry into a fishery with a long tradition of local control and industry-led conservation efforts. The bill would create a new, limited lobster and crab fishing license for a reduced number of traps; increase the age from 18 to 23 before someone who has gone through the industry’s apprenticeship program is put on a waiting list; and remove special fees for applicants age 70 or older, among other provisions.

But several members of the Legislature’s Committee on Marine Resources are skeptical of the proposal because of its relatively modest impact on reducing the waiting list and the unforeseen consequences it could have on a fishery that has posted record landings for reasons that are not fully understood. The wariness is shared by the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, the leading trade group representing the industry, as well as the Maine Lobstering Union, a recently formed labor union. Roughly 123 million pounds of lobster were landed in 2014, with the value of the catch at nearly $457 million, a record. Regulators and the industry do not believe that those landings will continue.

Carl Wilson, director of the Bureau of Marine Science and the state’s leading lobster biologist, told legislators Wednesday that the proposal likely wouldn’t have a “huge negative impact” on the fishery. He said the effect would probably be the equivalent of the unreported landings of lobster that are cash sales.

However, Wilson also acknowledged that there are some “troubling” indicators that the industry could be headed for a downturn. The indicators are different from the ones that appeared before the collapse of the fishery in southern New England.

The uncertainty has fueled concerns that the licensing bill, L.D. 1503, could put more traps in the water at a time when lobstermen in some zones are complaining of overcrowding. Others worried that the proposal also will subvert zone council systems set up to account for different fishing practices and the recommended number of licenses in a particular area.


“As I look out at you fishermen I know that you work very hard on the conservation of the fishery and you should be lauded for that,” Rep. Michael Devin, D-Newcastle, said. “But as you all know there are many, many factors, and five years from now you guys may be looking at half the landings you’re getting now.”


Devin expressed concerns about an amendment proposed by Rep. Jeffrey Pierce, R-Dresden, that would change the bill to allow someone who has been on the waiting list for five years to be issued a lobster or crab license with a limited number of traps. The trap quota would gradually increase under Pierce’s proposal. The current trap quota for a Class II license is 800 traps.

Pierce said his proposal also is designed to address the inequity that allows a participant in the state’s apprentice program to immediately qualify for a license – often before someone on the waiting list.

“I look forward to someone answering the inequity problem,” he said. “How do we move forward in good conscience? The people on the list are young people, too. They want businesses and a livelihood, too.”

Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, helped craft the original bill. He estimated that it would let in 50 to 60 people currently on waiting lists – roughly 1 percent of the 5,800 current license holders. That outcome would hinge on between 150 and 300 registered lobstermen relinquishing their licenses, either because they’ve retired or because they have not reported landings in recent years.



The practice of holding onto a license and not fishing is known as latency among regulators and the industry. Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, told lawmakers last week that the state needs to address latency before it can make changes that affect the waiting list.

The state, however, may have little incentive to do so. Partial or unused lobster licenses represent approximately $400,000 in state revenue, Devin said. Keliher believes it’s higher than that, but he could not provide an estimate to the committee.

Wilson, the state’s director of the Bureau of Marine Science, said there were 1,100 licensed lobstermen with no reported landings last year.

Keliher told the committee that in the unlikely event that all latent license holders fished at full capacity, the state would face a difficult regulatory scenario.

“It would not be sustainable if all latency license holders decided to go fishing,” he said.


On the other hand, he said, there would be a “significant fiscal impact” to the department that regulates the lobster fishery if all latency license holders suddenly relinquished their licenses and stopped paying their fees.

According to state officials, there are numerous reasons why lobstermen would purchase a license and not use it. Some, Keliher said, are holding out hope that state laws will one day change to allow them to sell their license to someone on the waiting list. Others, he said, keep their license because it’s a key component of their identity.

Legislators took no action on the bill Wednesday and instead moved to consider a stripped-down proposal that will seek to clean up the waiting list to ensure that the people on it are still interested in obtaining a license or are still alive.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: stevemistler

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