The lobster industry in Maine is unique. Maine is one of the only places in the world where we have been harvesting lobsters for over 150 years and still have a successful fishery.
The Maine Legislature turned back a measure that could have placed in jeopardy this $1 billion industry that supports 7,000 jobs. I’m proud to be able to say that Democrats and Republicans in both the House of Representatives and Senate considered the science and the sustainable practices of lobstermen and rejected a bill that however well-intentioned could have wreaked havoc on Maine’s vital lobster fishery.
The proposal, LD 1549, An Act To Provide an Exemption for Incidentally Caught Lobsters, would have caused major problems. It would have removed the state penalty on trawlers and allowed groundfishermen to keep lobster bycatch and sell it out of state.
Current federal law allows states to individually allow groundfishermen to land up to 500 incidentally caught lobsters offshore. New Hampshire and Massachusetts both follow this rule, while Maine’s law prohibits such practices precisely because it undermines the sustainability of lobstering. The penalty for landing lobster bycatch can be up to $50,000.
The Maine lobster industry’s success is largely due to our protection of offshore lobsters.
Overwhelming evidence shows that dragging for lobsters hurts the ocean floor. Because groundfish stocks are depleted, groundfishermen are looking to benefit from lobster they catch offshore. Dragged lobsters are often mangled during a catch, and the injured lobsters are often too weak to survive the trauma. These lobsters are thrown back into the ocean and left to die.
Offshore habitat is critical to our inshore lobster fishery. Oversize lobsters found in offshore waters produce larvae that, through currents and their own swimming capability, are transported to shallow coastal locations where they settle and grow into juvenile lobsters. As lobsters mature, they start migrating to deeper waters. They reach breeding age at about 10 years. When lobsters are caught en masse offshore, it kills off the future populations that take decades to repopulate.
In the 1910s, lobster landings dropped as precipitously as codfish and sea urchin landings have today. It took until the 1930s to put in place the current regulations and another two decades for lobsters to rebound. Lobster fishermen have been rewarded for their willingness over the past 60 years to embrace laws on lobster size, gear rules and the required release of egg-bearing females. Those lobster bycatch and offshore fishing laws were put in place for the same reasons I opposed this bill. Maine does not allow incidentally caught lobsters to be sold by groundfishermen because it kills jobs, ruins the economy and depletes the lobster population. It took decades for lobstermen to see the results of these measures.
Catching lobsters offshore is comparable to eating seed potatoes in the winter. It defies common sense. There are other concrete ways to help groundfishermen and preserve the lobster industry.
We can support the $3.5 million bond to purchase groundfish quota that was unanimously supported by the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee to assist the permit bank. We can also invest in processing and freezing technology to compete with Boston’s and Canada’s processing centers. More importantly, we can lobby the federal government to stop allowing “incidental” lobster bycatch and bring Massachusetts and New Hampshire in line with the well-thought-out laws of our state.
Our lobster industry is too valuable to jeopardize with such short-sighted measures. There are too many jobs that would be put at risk — and not just those that are obviously tied to lobstering.
There’s no doubt that Maine’s most famous crustacean draws people to our state. Tourists flock to our coastline, but our inland areas also benefit from the exposure. Once visitors are here, Maine has the chance to show off its inland gems to them as well.
The defeated bill would have discouraged ecological lobstering practices and jeopardized our Marine Sustainable Certification, recently bestowed upon the Maine inshore trap lobster fishery. Let’s invest in better processing technology, support the groundfish quota bond and work with the federal government to stop allowing New Hampshire and Massachusetts to practice unsustainable fishing.
We must remain vigilant against such measures. We need to do everything we can to protect our vital lobster fishery.
Democratic Rep. Mick Devin is serving his first term in the Maine Legislature and represents Newcastle, Damariscotta, Edgecomb, Bristol, South Bristol and Monhegan Plantation. He is a marine biologist who works at the Darling Marine Center in Walpole.