AUGUSTA, Maine — A long-running dispute among Down East lobstermen has spilled over into the State House, where leaders of Maine’s lobster community are lobbying to close what they say is a loophole allowing some to exploit the state’s strict catch rules.
But a Jonesport lobsterman at the center of the dispute said the bill is just the latest attempt by some of his neighbors to harass him and his family.
The Maine Department of Marine Resources has written a bill to clarify the “owner-operator law” to state that a lobsterman may operate only a boat listed on his license. The clarification, which has the support of Maine’s three large lobstermen’s associations, is intended to prevent one person from fishing more than the 800 lobster traps allowed under state law by secretly “setting up” another person with a boat and traps.
The bill, LD 246, also toughens the penalties for taking undersized, oversized or egg-bearing lobsters or for purposely interfering with another fisherman’s traps. For instance, it raises the maximum fine for possessing an undetermined number of illegal lobster from $2,000 to $5,000.
“I think we need to do this because hard times are coming and we need to protect the resource,” said Port Clyde lobsterman Gerry Cushman.
But it’s the owner-operator provisions of the bill that garnered the most attention Monday in the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee.
Belfast lobsterman Mike Dassatt, who is also secretary-treasurer of the Downeast Lobstermen’s Association, said he knows several people who are skirting the state’s law and hauling many more than 800 traps. Dassatt said state records may show someone else as owning the boat and traps, but in reality it’s the same person.
As a result, those people are allowed to haul two times and sometimes three times as many traps in the state’s lobster zone system, which limits each lobsterman to 800 traps.
“The bottom line is you own the vessel, you operate the vessel,” Dassatt said.
The Maine Lobster Advisory Council, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, the Downeast Lobstermen’s Association and the Southern Maine Lobstermen’s Association all endorsed the new owner-operator rules.
The changes are inspired, at least in part, by a long-running dispute involving William Smith of Jonesport and his 20-year-old daughter.
Smith, who is widely known by his nickname “Killer,” fishes with his daughter twice a week on a boat that is in her name tending her 800 traps. But Smith said his daughter is uncomfortable operating the sizable vessel for medical reasons, so he operates the boat while his daughter helps tend the traps.
The problem, according to other lobstermen, is that Smith owns his own boat and has 800 of his own traps. Critics accuse Smith of running the show on both boats and using his daughter as a way to double-dip into Maine’s limited-entry lobster zones.
Smith, in turn, accuses members of the Downeast Lobstermen’s Association and others of harassing him and his daughter for the past four or five years. Smith said Monday that the bill’s current language would force her to give up her primary source of income because she won’t operate the boat herself.
“Where are we going to sell $100,000 worth of boats and traps right now?” Smith asked.
Another lobsterman, Frank Thompson of Vinalhaven, admitted to using the apparent loophole. Thompson said he now fishes with two boats, which he said is more honest than some other lobstermen who he knows are collecting more than 800 traps from one boat.
There was also significant disagreement Monday over how much of a problem the owner-operator law was. While Thompson estimated that fewer than a dozen fishermen statewide would be affected by the law change, one Portland lobsterman said he knows eight or nine people in his own port who are exploiting the law.
The committee is expected to hold a work session on the bill on Wednesday, Feb. 18.