Multiple rule-changes could be coming for Maine’s lucrative lobster industry from both the state and federal governments in the coming year.
At the federal level, concerns over entanglements with the endangered North Atlantic right whale have led fisheries managers to begin discussing what steps need to be taken by the lobster industry to avoid whale deaths. Currently there are just over 400 right whales left in the world, and high death rates in 2016 and 2017 have led rule makers to consider changes to gear requirements.
At a meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Council in Virginia, the lobster board voted unanimously to push forward a set of actions intended to reduce the amount of vertical lines from lobster traps in the water. Those changes could include lower limits on the number of traps that lobstermen are allowed to use, changes in gear configuration, and seasonal closures.
The move is intended to pre-empt decision making by the NOAA, Maine Commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources Patrick Keliher told Maine Public.
“I don’t want NOAA making decisions on what this lobster fishery is going to look like in the future,” Keliher said. “Our role as a board should be how can we as a board and a management body and as individual jurisdictions reduce risk to the right whales.”
At the same time, Maine’s legislature is considering new rules regarding who can obtain a license for lobstering in the state. Currently, the state has a fixed number of regional licenses that are held for as long as the lobstermen wish. The only way to get a new license is to either pass the state’s apprenticeship program before the age of 23, or wait for a current license holder to quit or die.
For any lobsterman hopeful over the age of 23, the wait can drag on for years. Some fishermen have passed the exam, and then waited well over a decade without being able to fish.
“There’s no hope for these people,” Evan Thompson of York, a fourth-generation lobsterman, said during a hearing on the rulemaking, according to a story in the Portland Press Herald. “Some of the guys down our way were on the list for 16 years. Some of these guys, they have been treated like meat. They had a dream and they ended up leaving because their dream is dead.”
The new rule would allow anyone who has been on the waitlist for over a decade to obtain a license.
However, current lobstermen have issues with the proposal, given that there’s a lot of traps already in the water.
“Everybody wants to go lobstering, but there are only so many parking spots in the parking lot,” Ian Lussier, a lobsterman from Owls Head, Maine, said during the hearing. “There is only so much room for traps and that room is taken up.”
Kristan Porter, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, also opposes the bill in light of the current discussion regarding right whales. More license holders means more traps, and more traps means more risk that whales become entangled in gear.
The Marine Fisheries Council proposals likely won’t be ready for pubic comment before spring, and the state’s license rulings will also take time. Any changes that affect the fishery are unlikely to occur in 2019.