Pingree submits lobster license bill for islanders

Posted April 10, 2009, at 9:26 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Full-time residents of remote offshore islands might have an easier time getting a lobster fishing license from the state if the Legislature approves a proposal by Speaker Hannah Pingree.

Pingree, whose district includes five such islands, has submitted LD 1231, which would allow island fishermen to petition the state to create limited-entry licensing programs for their communities. Only the 14 or so islands in Maine that have year-round populations but do not have a bridge connection to the mainland would be eligible for the program.

Pingree said Thursday the bill would allow island communities to maintain their own waiting lists for lobster licenses, rather than having to be on the same waiting lists as nearby mainland communities.

But the bill is not so much about the lobster industry as it is about the future of Maine’s inhabited offshore islands, she said. If lobster licenses now held by island residents end up going to mainland fishermen as island fishermen retire, it could harm the viability of island communities, she said.

“There are no other jobs [on these islands] in the wintertime,” Pingree said.

Some residents on Maine’s offshore islands — Isle au Haut and Great Cranberry Island are examples — have expressed concern that the number of their year-round residents might get too low to support permanent communities, she said.

“It is an issue whether the [island’s] school will stay open or the post office will stay open,” Pingree said. “This is not just about fishing.”

Pingree said the Island Institute in Rockland helped develop the idea that led to her bill. Attempts Thursday to contact Rob Snyder, the institute’s vice president of programs, were unsuccessful.

Under Maine’s lobster fishery management system, all island communities except Monhegan are part of larger zones in which all prospective lobstermen are subject to the same license entry rules. Monhegan has had its own zone since 1998.

With the exception of Zone C, which extends from southeastern Penobscot Bay to western Blue Hill Bay, all of Maine’s lobster management zones are closed, meaning there is a waiting list for prospective lobstermen who want to fish in those zones. In some zones, more than one licensed lobsterman has to retire before the state will issue a new license in that zone so that over time the fishing pressure on that zone’s lobster population will be reduced.

With Pingree’s proposal, island communities would have the chance to make sure that when a local fisherman retires, that license would go to another resident of the same island. A fisherman would have to both live on an island and have his lobster license for five years in order to be able to keep his license if he moves to a mainland town in the same zone.

Pingree said that concern over restricting lobstering opportunities to Isle au Haut residents is one reason Zone C fishermen have voted to keep the zone open. The intent of the bill is not to eliminate the apprenticeship prerequisite for lobster licenses or to create any other kind of loophole by which mainland residents can more easily obtain a license, she said.

“Our goal is not to expand the [fishing] effort significantly,” Pingree said. “I’m hopeful [the bill] is a fairly small effort that doesn’t change our management system.”

Myron “Sonny” Sprague, a selectman and lobsterman from Swan’s Island, said Thursday that he supports the bill. Most of Maine’s offshore inhabited islands have no year-round jobs besides lobster fishing, he said, and if too many licenses end up being transferred from island communities to the mainland, it could mean the end for those island towns.

“If I couldn’t go lobstering, I don’t know what else I could do,” Sprague said.

According to the bill, an island community that wants its own waiting list would have to have five or more license holders on the island and then petition the Department of Marine Resources commissioner to be allowed to hold a vote. In the subsequent vote, two-thirds of the license holders would have to vote in favor of creating their own limited-entry license program.

The commissioner then could accept a recommendation from the island’s license holders on how many licenses the island should get, but first has to consult with the officers of the management zone of which the island is a part, the bill says.

David Etnier, deputy DMR commissioner, said Thursday the department testified in favor of the bill at a public hearing Monday in front of the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee. He said some issues remain to be worked out, perhaps through the department’s interior rule-making process, including how to define a year-round island resident.

He said that, as proposed, the bill could result in an increase in the number of licensed lobstermen on the islands. Whether that would mean fewer licenses to go around in the mainland towns in that same zone has not been decided, he said.

Patrice McCarron, executive director for Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said Wednesday details of the bill were released only last week. The association needs more time before it decides whether to take a position on it, she said.

McCarron said the association testified neither in favor nor against the bill at Monday’s public hearing. She said the legislative committee agreed not to hold a work session until May to give interested parties more time to look into it.

“This is definitely a new concept,” McCarron said. “I’m sure there are a lot of issues that need to be thought through.”

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