Maine Lobstermen’s Association says 54-year-old consent decree doesn’t work anymore

Posted March 20, 2012, at 7:33 p.m.
Last modified March 21, 2012, at 9:53 a.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — The largest commercial fishing advocacy group in Maine believes it is time it is released from restrictions imposed upon it by the federal government in 1958.

The consent decree was imposed on the Maine Lobstermen’s Association after the group lost a 1957 antitrust lawsuit that accused it of trying to set the price that lobstermen should get for their catch. Since then, the association has become more involved in management issues such as gear restrictions, fishing practices and resource protection but has steered clear of any discussion or activity that addresses the issue of how much money fishermen should be paid for their lobster.

The association is petitioning the Department of Justice to be released from the consent decree.

According to association officials, the imposed restrictions prevent the group from reorganizing itself as a nonprofit corporation and could be used to prevent the group from participating in fishery management talks and activities that do not involve price discussions.

“The industry has changed substantially in the more than five decades since the Consent Decree was entered,” Maine Lobstermen’s Association officials wrote Monday in a prepared statement. “During that time, environmental, economic, and fisheries management regulations have fundamentally altered the industry.”

On Tuesday, Executive Director Patrice McCarron said the consent decree is “really antiquated.” The group has been careful to avoid any role in price protests that have occurred in Maine’s fishery from time to time, she said, and if the consent decree were lifted the group still would be subject to the Sherman Antitrust Act, just as any other advocacy group in any industry is.

“It is germane to 1957 and not to 2012,” McCarron said about the decree. “The Maine Lobstermen’s Association does not buy or sell lobsters. It doesn’t make any sense to be bound by this.”

In 1990, when the association started sharing price information with other lobster fishing groups in New England and Atlantic Canada, federal officials took note of the group’s involvement, according to McCarron. The goal of the practice, McCarron said, was simply to share information and to improve transparency in the industry and was not meant in any way to be interpreted as a suggestion of what prices fishermen should be paid. Having determined that the price-sharing arrangement does not violate the consent decree, the Department of Justice has allowed the practice to continue.

But the association decided at the time to change its organizational structure to a cooperative, she said, which it hoped would release or at least loosen the restrictions imposed by the consent decree. In the past couple of years, however, the group has been told by legal counsel that the consent decree still applies. And of particular concern, she added, is a provision that prohibits the Maine Lobstermen’s Association from engaging in any sort of activity or advocacy that might affect the supply of live lobsters.

The supply of live lobsters, McCarron said, is something that can easily be affected by several management practices, which the group does take an interest in. A limit on traps, which has been discussed at length as an environmental issue, has a direct correlation to the amount of lobster that is caught, she said. Limited entry into the fishery in some areas and conservation measures such as size limits and returning egg-bearing females to the ocean also affect the amount of lobster available on the market.

Plus, the lobstermen’s association wants to reorganize itself as a nonprofit corporation so it can expand its education and charitable activities, according to McCarron. If it can be released from the 54-year-old consent decree and become a nonprofit corporation, the group won’t have to worry about participating in management discussions and still won’t have any interest in trying to determine or even talk about the price of lobster, she said.

“We don’t want, in any way, to be impeded from working in the management arena,” McCarron said. “Ultimately, we’re not proposing to do anything different.”

Information about how Department of Justice views the request, or whether Maine Department of Marine Resources supports the group’s request, was unavailable Tuesday afternoon. Attempts to contact DMR and Justice officials were unsuccessful.

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.

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