Bait bill raises concerns from lobster fishermen

Posted Feb. 20, 2009, at 9:24 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative bill that would ban dragging for bait fish within two miles of shore has raised concerns among some commercial lobster fishing groups about how it might affect the availability of herring.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Linda Valentino of Saco, said Thursday that the bill likely will face some revisions when a legislative committee holds a public hearing on it early next week. The Legislature’s joint marine resources committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the bill, LD 378, and other proposals at 9 a.m. Monday, Feb. 23, in Room 214 of the Cross Building at the State House complex.

Valentino said she submitted the bill at the request of a constituent who is a recreational fisherman and who was worried that fishing trawlers were scooping up too many other fish. She declined to say who the constituent is but said he is expected to attend Monday’s public hearing.

Valentino said she has heard from others who have concerns about the proposal, which she acknowledged is broad as it is now written.

“Maybe we can narrow it down a little bit,” she said. “I’m [planning on] getting up to speed on the bill myself this weekend.”

Valentino said some of the people who have contacted her are lobstermen who are concerned such a ban could further restrict the amount of herring available to their industry. Herring, which lobstermen use to bait their traps, has increased in price significantly in recent years and has decreased in supply as regulators have put more restrictions on the herring fishery.

In Maine, where lobster fishing gear can be found in abundance along much of the coast, the boats that fish for herring along the coast tend to be smaller purse seiners, which set nets in a relatively small area at the water’s surface. Larger trawlers, which suspend their nets lower in the water column, tend to fish farther from shore than in the area that would be affected by the bill.

Last September, regulators limited purse-seine herring boats to four days of fishing in the inner Gulf of Maine, which caused some fishermen to worry whether Maine’s lobster industry would have enough bait for its traditionally busy fall season.

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said Friday that the group is concerned about the bill. Herring and pogies caught in Maine’s territorial waters, which extend three miles out from shore, are essential to making sure the lobster industry has enough bait, McCarron said.

“The importance of that bait cannot be understated,” McCarron said. “We need the bait fish. End of story.”

McCarron said MLA plans to testify against the bill at Monday’s public hearing.

Mike Dassatt, secretary-treasurer of the Down East Lobstermen’s Association, said the group has not taken a formal position on the bill but that many lobstermen likely would not oppose a ban on dragging. But if the bill is meant to ban purse seining, he said, “now we got a problem. We need the seining operation.”

Dassatt said group members had been sent e-mails about the bill and likely would reply to association officials over the weekend. He said many members likely will want to know more about the intent of the bill before they make up their minds about it.

“I can see a couple of issues here that need to be clarified,” Dassatt said.

The marine resources committee also is expected to hold public hearings Monday on bills that would address urchin license fees, the enforcement of aquaculture leases, and the ability of fishermen to sell shellfish directly to retailers.

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