CONTRIBUTORS

Maine fishery officials are shutting out commercial divers

Posted Jan. 07, 2014, at 11:47 a.m.

I’ve been a commercial diver in the state of Maine for more than 23 years. In my career I’ve dove commercially for urchins, sea scallops, clams, periwinkles, mussels, lobster and logs. You name it, and I’ve probably either tried it or am going to try it to supplement and increase my diving opportunities and income.

By trade I am an urchin diver but with the mismanagement of the urchin fishery by the Maine Department of Marine Resources — which didn’t try to protect them before they became overfished and started to decline — I’ve had to try new avenues for my diving skills.

In the late 1990s we tried diving for soft-shelled clams. It took us divers a lot of days at sea for nothing; then we started to harvest two bushels or more on some days. The shore diggers got jealous, and the DMR closed that fishery to diving — even though some shore diggers harvest more than two bushels a day quite regularly. The DMR decided against giving us a limit or giving us a few days a week, just closed it to all diving, period.

In the early 2000s we started to harvest periwinkles. There was quite a learning process to this, and we had to invest more than $2,000 in equipment (dredges). After a long learning curve, we started to harvest 500 to 1,000 pounds a day. Again, hand harvesters raised a fuss, and again the DMR closed that fishery to divers even though it allowed boats, under certain restrictions, to drag periwinkles.

In the mid 2000s several divers asked the DMR if we could dive non-commercially and commercially for lobsters. Non-commercially we asked to only harvest 25 lobster a day; commercially we asked to harvest 100 pounds a day — the bare minimum of a day’s pay after expenses in the state of Maine.

Some argued we would take lobster from traps. Trust me when I tell you there are a lot more lobster out of traps than in them. We only asked to harvest enough to get us through our off seasons. Yet again the DMR did not give us non-commercial or commercial rights to dive for lobsters, even though other states allow diving for lobsters.

It made that decision even though most boats land 400 pounds or more of lobster a day, and it is not unheard of for one boat to land several thousand pounds a day in August or September. Recently one boat I know of brought in 14,000 pounds in a single day’s hauling. You mean to tell me that the lobster fishery is not healthy enough to help support a few off-season divers (about 160 divers) with a record landing like we’ve been having?

The scallop and urchin fisheries have limited entry, and no new licenses have been issued for draggers or divers for years. The best divers, however, would have a hard time to harvest more than 50 pounds a day, where in the past draggers have routinely harvested more than 100 pounds a day, and it is not unheard of for one boat to land 500 pounds or more of meats in a single day.

It’s now so difficult to file the paperwork for log diving that only a few divers from Maine have the constitution and patience to do it. The last time I dove on logs in Maine, I had to file more than 100 pages of paperwork with several state agencies to get my permit. I started the process in May and never received my permit until Sept. 1. At least it got to me in the same year, but it’s a summertime job!

In 2000, there were 1,122 licensed scallop and sea urchin divers in Maine. Today there are 167, according to DMR. This is because of the fact that the state limits new licenses. Also, these fisheries are no longer viable sources of income because of mismanagement, so fisherman are dropping out.

Each diver directly puts one if not two other people to work tending or culling his daily catch. So, in part by mismanaging the very fisheries the DMR has been empowered to protect, it has effectively removed from the workforce approximately 950 divers, 950 tenders and probably a another 450 cullers for a minimum of about 2,350 workers.

I’m not asking the DMR to willy nilly open up all fisheries to diving. I’m only asking them to keep an open mind and consider managing how much divers can collect, so they can make a living. DMR should give us a reasonable per-day pound limit or a reasonable days-out-at-sea limit instead of throwing us out of the fisheries altogether.

Is Maine diver-friendly? Is the DMR dead set against all diving endeavors in the Maine waters? I’ll let its past record speak for itself.

Quinton King of Corinth has been commercially diving for urchins since 1990.

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