ELLSWORTH, Maine — A report prepared by Gulf of Maine Research Institute for the state Department of Marine Resources recommends that a tiered licensing system be established in Maine to help ensure the lobster fishery’s long-term sustainability.
The 82-page report, presented last week by GMRI to DMR officials, also recommends consideration of different measures for reducing waiting periods to get into the fishery, and the development of a fishery management plan that establishes “clear goals” for the fishery.
The report is the end result of a project ordered by the state Legislature to evaluate the state’s limited entry licensing system.
According to the report, DMR should look into establishing four tiers of commercial licenses, each with different levels of allowed traps. Many lobstermen are licensed to use more traps than they actually set in the water, and the potential for those so-called “latent” traps to be actively used could greatly increase the statewide fishing effort and have an adverse impact on the resource, DMR officials have said.
According to the report’s executive summary, in that scenario more than 1.2 million already permitted traps theoretically could be introduced into the fishery.
“That represents a potential 39 percent increase in existing effort,” the report says.
Such an increase could not only hurt the resource, but could increase competition and congestion on the water and adversely affect the price fishermen get for their catch.
A tiered licensing system would be established based not on how many trap tags fishermen are licensed to use, but on their fishing history. Most of Maine’s approximately 5,300 licensed lobstermen currently are limited to fishing a maximum of 800 traps apiece.
“Existing license holders would be divided into the four tiers based on landings and tag history, reflecting their current and recent activity,” the report says.
The report also suggests that, if fishermen are limited to the number of traps they have actually used in recent years, it would reduce the potential for latent equipment to come into use and therefore would allow more would-be lobstermen to get licenses more quickly, without affecting the resource.
DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher said Tuesday that the GMRI report is helping to draw attention to lobster fishery management issues at an opportune time.
Maine’s annual lobster catches have increased steadily since 1990, when Maine fishermen caught a total of 28 million pounds of lobster and cumulativelty were paid $61 million for their efforts. Last year, the statewide catch topped 100 million pounds and had a direct value to fishermen of $334 million.
But last year there also was an unseasonal glut of soft-shell lobsters in the spring and early summer that caused a plummet in price to less than $2 per pound. The most recent year in which Maine lobstermen earned on average less than $2 per pound was 1980.
Keliher said DMR and industry representatives need to revisit the fishery’s management policies in order to make sure the fishery is sustainable and to protect the long-term economic viability of Maine’s coastal communities.
“GMRI’s report provides us with an objective, scientific analysis as we begin that conversation,” Keliher said Tuesday in a prepared statement.
Patrice McCarron, executive director of Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said Thursday that there is a lot of information to digest in the 82-page report and that association officials were still going through it. With approximately 1,200 members, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association is the largest commercial fishermen’s organization in the state.
McCarron said the ever-increasing landings figures indicate the resource is not being overfished, but that the association is not opposed to some of the general concepts raised in the report. A tiered licensing system, for example, could be acceptable to the group as long as there is flexibility for fishermen to move back and forth among tiers, she said.
McCarron added that it is good to have the fishery’s management policies independently reviewed.
“The devil is in the details with anything,” McCarron said.
According to the DMR release, the agency plans to hold meetings along the coast in the coming months to seek industry input on potential changes to the limited entry system.
DMR staff also plan to solicit comment from people in the industry about ongoing quality and profitability challenges. The dates for those meetings are still being scheduled but will be posted on DMR’s website.
“We will be thoroughly evaluating the data, analyses and recommendations in this report as we develop concepts to take out to the lobster industry for further input,” Keliher said in the release. “Our goal is to ensure that we develop a plan that supports and sustains this vital Maine resource and economy.”
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.