AUGUSTA — Lobstermen fed up with cohorts who violate fishing regulations testified in favor of a bill to allow Marine Patrol officers to secretly install tracking devices on fishing vessels suspected of illegal activity without first obtaining a warrant.

While a smaller faction opposed the bill, both sides agreed that Maine faces a growing “epidemic” posed by a small number of law-breakers fueling dangerous conflict and threatening the stewardship ethos within the state’s most valuable fishery. They also agreed that the Maine Department of Marine Resources needed more enforcement tools, but lobstermen differed on whether DMR’s commissioner should be allowed to authorize the installation of GPS tracking devices without getting a judge’s approval.

“It is coming to a point where violence will happen and I don’t want to see it happen,” Jason Joyce, a Swans Island lobsterman. “I’ve fished my whole life … the department is full of people who (committed to) criminal justice and they are not trying to impose anything on us as an industry. They are trying to help us out and they need the tools to do it.”

Critics raised concerns about giving the DMR commissioner – a political appointee – too much power and criticized what they said was overly broad or sweeping language in the bill.

“We need to help our law enforcement, yes, but the way the bill is written presently is not the way to do it,” said Rock Alley, a Jonesport fishermen and president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Union.

Lobstering in Maine always has been a rough-and-tumble industry where territorial disputes, personal conflicts or perceptions of wrong-doing can lead to sabotaged traps, sunken boats and occasional violence. But those tensions have risen to new levels in recent years, including the loss of more than $350,000 in gear during an intense “trap war” in the Swans Island-Stonington area last year, and one lobsterman’s boat being sunk at its mooring three times.

Maine lobstermen hauled in 130 million pounds of the crustaceans last year worth an estimated $533 million.

State law already allows Marine Patrol officers to obtain a warrant from a court to covertly install surveillance devices such as GPS trackers on vessels when officers have probable cause to believe the operator is engaged in criminal violations. But many serious crimes in Maine’s lobster industry – such as fishing more than the maximum 800 traps or hauling another fisherman’s gear – are civil violations that therefore require officers to provide targeted fishermen with at least 24 hours’ notice before installing tracking devices.

The bill under consideration in the Legislature, L.D. 1379, would allow the DMR commissioner to authorize the covert installation of a GPS tracking device in cases where Marine Patrol officers show “probable cause” of a civil violation.

Commissioner Patrick Keliher said conflicts between lobstermen are “indisputably” increasing as some lobstermen fish too many traps, set gear outside of their designated zone or fish “sunken trawls” without buoys to evade detection. Keliher, who called the bill “the most important piece of legislation” of his tenure as DMR commissioner, said he feared the actions of a few bad apples threatened to erode the conservation ethic of the industry.

“On many occasions when conducting suspension hearings in my office, I have asked the fishermen what led him to commit these violations?” Keliher told members of the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee. “Many times, the unfortunate response is that they witnessed other fishermen getting away with it and finally grew tired of the uneven playing field.”

Seeking to address concerns raised by numerous fishermen, Keliher said the department would gladly clarify that the bill would only allow installation of GPS tracking devices and not video or audio surveillance equipment.

CONSTITUTIONAL ISSUES

But the bill drew strong opposition from the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, both of which raised constitutionality concerns about what they said amounts to a secret, warrantless search.

“You would be allowing a political appointee to make a decision to allow for electronic surveillance of an individual. That is unheard of anywhere in the law,” said Walt McKee, representing the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “There is no other provision in Maine law for any other commissioner of any other organization to allow electronic tracking … to track someone or to observe someone in their own private places. That is an incredible, broad power that you would be allowing this commissioner to engage in and, I would suggest to you, is an incredibly slippery slope.”

Fishing too many lobster traps and molesting other people’s gear used to be a criminal offense, however DMR and lobster industry leaders were frustrated that so many offenders received small fines or no punishment at all. As a result, they successfully petitioned the Legislature to change those violations to civil offenses. Opponents of L.D. 1379 suggested reverting back to the old system, thereby allowing Marine Patrol to covertly install surveillance equipment with a judge’s approval.

But the clear majority of lobstermen who traveled to Augusta to testify Monday – including a contingent of eight from Swan’s Island – were in favor of the bill, albeit with amendments. They wanted the bill to specify that it only allowed GPS tracking and support requiring the Attorney General’s Office to sign off on any warrantless surveillance. Keliher said he already consults with the Attorney General’s Office on major cases.

Dave Cousens, a South Thomaston fisherman who serves as president of the Maine Lobsterman’s Association, estimated that a half-dozen people are stealing in excess of $150,000 in lobster every year. Those people are taking money directly out of the pockets of other lobstermen in those zones, which Cousens said “leads to social unrest” and fuels anger among honest fishermen who see others fishing 1,200 or even 1,600 traps with no punishment.

“Right now, there is a lot of lobsters being caught,” Cousens said. “I would say the major problem we are facing right now is cheating by not a lot of people but enough people so that it is becoming a huge problem.”

The Marine Resources Committee will hold a work session on L.D. 1379 at a future date.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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