PORTLAND, Maine — Scott Beede is one of 302 people on the waiting list for a Maine lobster license. By his calculations he will be nearly 80 years old — or dead — by the time his wait is over.
Beede, 50, says the state’s 15-year-old licensing system needs an overhaul to give newcomers like him a fair shot at getting a license to fish their own traps in Maine’s lobster-rich waters.
In time, he may get his wish. The Department of Marine Resources expects to award a contract next month for the first top-to-bottom analysis of Maine’s lobster licensing system. A final report with recommendations will be presented to the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee next January.
Beede has worked as a sternman for eight years on his 70-year-old stepfather’s lobster boat in the town of Mount Desert. He would like to buy his stepfather’s boat and traps so his stepfather can retire, but first he has to get his own license — something he says is nearly impossible under existing rules.
“It’ll be at least 25 years before I can get a license,” said Beede. “I’ll never see it at the rate it’s going.”
The current limited-entry system was put into place in 1997, with the aim of protecting both the lobster population and Maine’s traditional lobster fishing communities. Maine has about 4,600 licensed lobstermen who haul an estimated 2 million to 3 million traps. Last year’s record catch of 104 million pounds was worth $331 million to fishermen.
To get a license now, would-be lobstermen have to complete a lobster fishing apprentice program that takes at least two years. When they finish, they put their names on a waiting list for a license.
Children who finish their apprenticeships before they turn 18 can get a license when they’re 17, a provision aimed at preserving the tradition in lobster-fishing families.
But for everyone else, the wait can be years or even decades.
Six of the state’s seven lobster zones have waiting lists, with more than 50 people on the list in each of four of the zones. In most of the state, the system is set up so that one license is issued for every 4,000 lobster traps that are put into retirement. That means it takes at least five fishermen — and oftentimes more — to give up their licenses before a single new license is issued.
Only seven new licenses were issued this year in the state’s six closed zones, said Deirdre Gilbert, director of marine policy at the Department of Marine Resources.
Critics of the existing system say it’s unfair that people who once held licenses and then left the industry for one reason or another are now barred from getting new licenses without going through the apprentice program and being put on a long waiting list. Others say they shouldn’t be penalized simply for developing an interest in lobster fishing later in life.
Still others, like Beede, say licenses should be transferable among members of the same family.
“It’s frustrating for all the people on the lists,” Beede said.
Current license holders generally feel that there are already enough lobstermen and traps and that adding to those numbers will put too much pressure on the lobster population. Fishermen are already burdened by low prices for their catches — they averaged $3.19 per pound last year, essentially the same price they got in 2001— and high prices they have to pay for fuel, bait and gear. If the system is changed, some fear it could result in a lower trap limit — now at 800 traps per lobstermen for most of the state — that could hurt their profits even more.
The new study hopes to make sense of it all, addressing the strengths and shortcomings of the existing system and developing recommendations to improve it. The study is being billed as a cost-benefit analysis.
It will also address some contentious subject areas, such as whether lobster licenses or the tags fishermen get for their traps can be transferred through sales to other people. There are fears that if licenses were transferable, they would become so expensive — transferable licenses in Atlantic Canada have been known to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars each — that the average young person couldn’t afford to go fishing and the future of Maine’s coastal fishing communities would be put at risk. Lobster licenses now cost fishermen $167 to $501 per year, with trap tags selling for 50 cents each.
South Thomaston lobsterman David Cousens, longtime president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said fishermen acknowledge the inequity of somebody waiting for years for a lobster license. But for the most part, lobstermen don’t feel a pressing need to change the system, he said.
“Even though it’s a complicated system, it’s a pretty good system,” he said.
Still, the analysis could result in changes, he said, depending on what the recommendations are and how legislators respond.
“We’re just waiting to see what happens,” he said. “But it could have far-reaching effects.”
Charles Gray of Scarborough disputes the notion that the system works.
Gray grew up lobstering with his father and had a license as a young man before deciding to try his hand at truck driving.
Ten years later, he returned to fishing, only to find a long waiting list.
Nowadays, he works as a sternman on his father’s boat, with his 79-year-old father — who has a license — merely coming along for the ride to make things legal.
If something happens to his father, Gray will be left unable to fish without his own license.
“I’m so discouraged now it just hurts,” Gray said. “I’m 49 years old and should be able to haul my own traps. And my father should be able to retire.”