Groundfish industry considers options with lobster bycatch bill’s defeat

Chad Dorr of Dorr Lobster Co. in Milbridge holds up a lobster on Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012, with one of the company's tags hanging off the lobster's claw.
Chad Dorr of Dorr Lobster Co. in Milbridge holds up a lobster on Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012, with one of the company's tags hanging off the lobster's claw.
Posted April 29, 2013, at 5:31 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Having been denied permission to land lobsters, members of Maine’s groundfish industry are saying they may have to consider moving or expanding their businesses further south.

Many in the industry had supported LD 1097, a bill that would have allowed groundfishing boats to bring lobster bycatch ashore in Maine. The measure would have brought extra fishing income to Maine and helped Maine’s groundfish fleet and shore-side infrastructure stay afloat as they face tighter restrictions on groundfish stocks, they said.

But the bill went down in defeat last week when the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee unanimously voted against the bill. The bill’s defeat means that Maine will continue to allow only lobsters caught in traps to be brought ashore in the state — and, according to groundfishery industry members, will ensure that many Maine groundfish boats continue to offload their catch in Gloucester, Mass., where lobsters caught by trawlers can be kept and sold.

Maine’s lobster industry, which is by far the largest and most influential commercial marine fishery in the state, had vigorously opposed the bill on the grounds that it could harm the lobster resource and diminish efforts to market Maine lobster and a sustainably harvested product. In 2012 the statewide lobster fleet caught nearly $339 million of lobster. By comparison, the value of the state’s groundfish landings were approximately $5 million.

South Portland resident Marty Odlin, whose family owns and operates three groundfish boats, said the bill’s defeat in committee was not unexpected, given the influence that the lobster trap fishery has in Augusta and throughout the state.

“No one is surprised,” he said last week in an email.

Odlin had said before the vote that his family and all the crew members on their boats live in Maine but, if LD 1097 were defeated, they likely would pick up and move their lives to Gloucester. He argued, unsuccessfully, that dragged lobsters caught offshore tend to be good quality, hard-shell lobsters that sell on the live lobster market for a higher per-pound price than softshell lobsters that are caught in traps closer to shore.

With the bill’s defeat, Odlin said it makes no sense to continue living in Maine when his livelihood in more viable in Massachusetts.

“Looks like we are moving the company down to Gloucester,” Odlin said.

Ray Swenton, board president of the Portland Fish Exchange, on Monday said that the committee’s vote was “short-sighted” and “narrow-minded.” While stressing that he was speaking only for himself and not the board, Swenton said the bill was supported by Gov. Paul LePage, the Maine Department of Marine Resources, and some members of the Legislature because it made economic sense.

The amount of lobster caught as bycatch by groundfish boats is only one-tenth of one percent of Maine’s trap fishery, which caught a record volume of 126 million pounds in 2012, Swenton said. Allowing those lobsters to be landed in Maine would not make a dent in the state’s $339 million lobster trap fishery.

“It will further devastate [groundfish landings] in the state of Maine,” Swenton said of the bill’s defeat. “It’s protectionism at its worst.”

Swenton, who co-owns and operates the Bristol Seafood processing firm in Portland, said he was not considering moving his business and its 75 employees out of Maine. But he did say the Legislature needs to do more to make Maine more business-friendly.

“I would look at Massachusetts for an expansion before I looked at Maine,” he said.

David Cousens, a South Thomaston lobsterman who serves as president of Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said Friday he hopes the issue has been put to bed once and for all.

“It’s the fourth time and I hope it’s the last time we have to hear about this,” Cousens said, referring to three similar bills that have been submitted over the past couple of decades.

Cousens said dragging is not an environmentally friendly way to fish and can produce damaged lobsters. Allowing dragged lobster to be kept as bycatch, he added, would have run counter to the Maine lobster industry’s efforts to brand their fishery as sustainable — a designation that was given official certification earlier this year by the Marine Stewardship Council.

“We’re all about quality and sustainability now,” Cousens said. “We just don’t want to be seen as allowing [lobsters to be caught by dragging]. It just doesn’t make sense.”

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