BUCKSPORT, Maine — Seasonal adjustments to the minimum size of lobster that can be caught and a new tiered licensing system are among the measures being considered by state officials to help improve the long-term viability of Maine’s lobster industry.
About 50 people, most of them fishermen, met at the Alamo theater with Maine Department of Marine Resources officials on Wednesday. The meeting was one of more than a dozen scheduled along the coast this month to try to develop a longer-term management strategy for Maine’s lobster fishery, which caught a record volume of 123 million pounds of lobster in 2012.
DMR officials also want to see what can be done to avoid a repeat of last year’s unseasonal glut of soft-shell lobsters and resulting price drop, which contributed to blockades in Canada of Maine lobster.
Patrick Keliher, DMR commissioner, said Wednesday that a trigger mechanism that would give him authority to temporarily adjust the minimum catch size of lobster may be one way to avoid a repeat of the glut of 2012. If Maine’s minimum catch size was increased by an eighth or a quarter of an inch for four weeks or so, lobsters that normally could be kept would have to be dumped back into the water. After a specified amount of time, the minimum catch automatically would revert to normal, which would have the effect of shifting some volume of landings to later in the summer, when lobster have harder shells and as a result survive better during shipping.
Canadian processors have more available capacity later in the summer to process lobster shipped from Maine.
Keliher said state officials have considered limiting the number of days that fishermen can go out, but that this idea has been less palatable to fishermen. He said he does not want to pursue any measures that are met with strong resistance by the industry.
“I’m here to listen,” he said. “This is not the heavy hand of government.”
Weather is a factor that can complicate when fishermen haul their traps, Keliher said. If fishermen end up working harder to catch the same amount of lobster in two or three days that they otherwise would catch in five, he added, it defeats the purpose of limiting fishing days.
DMR officials also talked about a possible tiered licensing system, the concept of which was recommended in a recent study conducted by Gulf of Maine Research Institute at the request of the Legislature.
The main purpose of introducing such a system would be to make it easier to get into the fishery without increasing the amount of traps in the water. DMR officials said some prospective fishermen in some zones have been waiting for a commercial license for 40 years.
The most number of traps any Maine lobsterman can use is 800, but officials say that many fishermen do not use all the traps that they buy registration tags for. DMR can determine how many tags each fisherman uses and how much lobster they catch, but not how many traps he or she actually sets in the water on a regular basis.
To establish a three-tier system, multiple recent years of fishing activity and tag purchases by each fishermen would be considered to determine whether they should be allowed to fish 50 traps, 400 traps, or to continue fishing up to 800 traps. Fishermen would be allowed to move up from one tier to another, but not beyond the 800-trap limit, if they reached certain levels of fishing activity.
DMR officials acknowledged that an increase in the amount of traps in the water, at least in some areas, could be one undesirable result of a tiered system. Fishermen that now buy the maximum of 800 trap tags but fish only 250, for example, could end up being licensed for and actually using 400 traps.
“The goal is not to increase effort in any way, shape or form,” Keliher said.
If Maine can reduce the amount of traps that are registered for use, regardless of whether they end up in the water, federal officials would view it as a positive step toward reducing the threat of fishing gear entanglement to endangered whales and other protected marine mammals, Keliher added.
Keliher said that, if a bill is submitted to and approved by the Legislature this year, a new three-tiered lobster license system could go into effect in 2014.
The final measure discussed Wednesday was a proposal submitted to the Legislature to establish licensing surcharges that, over three years, would raise nearly $3 million for a new Maine lobster marketing program. A new entity, more responsive to industry concerns and suggestions, would be established to run the program, replacing the Maine Lobster Promotion Council, which has an annual budget of only $300,000.
Keliher said the surcharge would vary according to the type of license it applies to and would increase each year for three years. It could range from less than $100 in the first year for some fishing licenses to more than $700 in the third year for others. Dealer surcharges could be up to nearly $2,000 a year while processor surcharges could range up to $2,600.
The current proposal calls for three years of surcharges and five years of marketing. After five years, an independent third party — not a state agency — would conduct an audit of the program to gauge its effectiveness. The Legislature then would have to reauthorize to the program for it to continue beyond five years, Keliher said.
If the Legislature approves the proposal for a more robust marketing program, Keliher said, officials could begin implementing it this fall.
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.