A local lobster zone council’s effort to restrict access for newcomers into the state’s busiest lobster hub advanced Friday when the state’s top marine official cleared the way for the proposal to move forward.

Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher determined that a Sept. 8 vote of the Lobster Zone C Council to require a lobsterman in Zone C to give up his license before a new license can be issued to someone else meets the department’s legal standards to consider rule changes, according to a notice released late Friday afternoon.

The council oversees lobster fishing off the areas of Stonington, Isle au Haut and Vinalhaven, waters generally considered to be the center of the state’s lobster industry. The roughly 300-boat fleet in Zone C drives the regional economy.

The change, referred to as a 1:1 exit-to-entry ratio, passed on a 6-1 vote of the council at its meeting in September. Licensed lobstermen in the zone were surveyed this summer about whether they wanted to restrict access to the fishery or continue to keep it open. Those who participated in the survey overwhelmingly voted to restrict access.

Once language of the new rule is written, it will be published and then followed by a public hearing in Zone C this fall.

After the public hearing, Keliher can choose to send the matter to the DMR Advisory Council, which can vote to adopt the new rule or not.

Deirdre Gilbert, director of marine policy for the DMR, said the rule-making process generally takes about 90 days.

If the council votes to uphold the rule change, the new rule will take effect in April. If it does not, Zone C, which was temporarily closed to outsiders while the council considered changing its entry rules, will reopen this winter, said Gilbert.

The coastal waters of Maine are split into seven fishing zones, lettered A through G, that stretch from the Canadian Maritimes to the New Hampshire border. Lobstermen must do 1,000 hours of training over 200 days as an apprentice to a licensed lobsterman from the zone where they live and will fish before they can apply for a state license. In all but eastern Penobscot Bay, or Zone C, apprentices wait years for a spot to open up.

At the time of the vote, council member Robert Ray said he felt bad for apprentices who had nearly completed their requirements, but said the closure had to take place because so many people were taking advantage of Zone C and its no-wait system, moving in from out of town and dropping traps and competing for ocean bottom with locals who had fished the waters for years.

Nearly three out of four lobstermen who participated in the referendum voted to restrict access.

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