An Island Lobster Lifeline

Posted April 26, 2009, at 5:53 p.m.

Maine’s lobster industry is going through a difficult time with the selling price down, the cost of bait and fuel up, the Canadian processors not buying so much and new federal rules, aimed at protecting whales, that require a switch to sinking line, which snags on rocks and requires more frequent replacement of rope and traps.

On top of all that, the lobstermen who live on Maine’s offshore islands face another problem: how to maintain their numbers in the face of license restrictions that may require as many as five retirements for the issuance of a single new license. There usually is a waiting list, and if several islanders quit the business no islander may be high enough on the list to get a license.

Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, an islander herself, with a district that includes 10 islands, has introduced LD 1231, “An Act to Protect the Long-term Viability of Island Lobster Fishing Communities.” It would exempt islanders from the zone waiting list system if they opted to create their own island waiting lists.

Take Islesford, also known as Little Cranberry, three miles off Northeast Harbor. Lobstering is its main industry. Licensed lobstermen who live there operate 11 boats. With their sternmen and families, they account for a substantial portion of the island’s year-round population, which holds rela-tively steady at about 80.

If the bill passes, and if the Islesford lobstermen vote to come under the new system, they will be exempt from the five-out-one-in rule and can run their own waiting list. Then, if several of the current lobstermen should retire or move off-island, qualified apprentices on the Islesford waiting list could take their places.

This assumes that young men and women will continue to enter lobstering as a career. And it assumes that newcomers will satisfy the five-year residence requirement in the bill. The life is not easy, but it has its pleasures, its independence, and the camaraderie of a fishing fleet with members that look after each other. And normally it can make a good living.

Islesford fishermen don’t like to talk about the plentiful lobsters in the unmarked but well-understood waters where they fish or the best places to set traps. They resist intruders but welcome serious newcomers who want to settle on the island and become part of the close-knit community.

Rep. Pingree’s bill, which she calls “a lifeline to Maine’s island communities,” would soften an unintended hardship imposed by the limited-entry zone system enacted in 2000 to gradually reduce the number of licenses.

The Marine Resources Committee has delayed a work session on the bill until May to give the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and other interests time to study the measure and assess its impact. The bill may need tinkering, but it should help.

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