ROCKPORT, Maine — Lobster fishing, the most lucrative commercial fishery in Maine with last year’s catch valued at $364.5 million, has a secret.
That is that nearly a third of the 6,000 people who hold Maine lobster licences are not actively fishing and catch almost nothing. Almost half of the license holders land less than 14 percent of the total catch of tasty crustaceans. Commissioner Patrick Keliher of the Maine Department of Marine Resources told a roomful of lobstermen at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum Saturday at the Samoset Resort that this discrepancy among license holders and active fishermen is called “latency.” He said that it is a concern that must be addressed in order to successfully manage the state’s most lucrative fishery.
Keliher said there are a number of reasons why latent licenses might become active, including changing personal circumstances, changes in other fisheries and the threat of losing licenses due to changes in management strategies. If those inactive fishermen started to set the traps they’re entitled to by law, it could stress the fishery, or certainly change it.
“There are 1.2 million trap tags that are not in the water,” the commissioner told the fishermen. “We can’t say, ‘We can’t talk about it,’ if we know it’s a problem. Having the conversation now, when there’s no threat or need to change, is a much different conversation than it could be in the future.”
The gathering at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum was the first of 10 regional meetings with fishermen to share information and also to have a dialogue about potential changes. The meetings will set the stage for the development of a fisheries management plan for the lobster industry. At the Samoset, Keliher told fishermen that the latency issue could be addressed by reducing total traps or by making more proportional trap allocations, but that it cannot be solved by continuing to ignore the problem.
“Our industry’s changing. We need to be able to change with it,” Bob Baines of Spruce Head, who chairs the DMR’s lobster advisory council, said. “This is going to be a tough one — but you can’t keep kicking the can down the road. It needs to be dealt with.”
One man in the crowd said he’s held a lobster license for 14 years, but doesn’t fish much.
“I’m not here to say we want to take your license away,” Keliher said. “But how do we phase that latency into the conversation in a controlled manner?”
Although no concrete plan came from the discussion, finally addressing latency — a long time ‘third rail’ of lobstering — meant a lot to Baines.
“Any changes that we need to make in the future truly would be ineffective if we didn’t deal with latency first,” the longtime fishermen said after the meeting. “If people with latent licenses joined the fishery … it takes the pie and makes the slices that much smaller.”
He said that his priority is to protect the active fishermen, but it won’t be easy to do that in a way that feels fair. Compounding the issue is the fact that lobster landings have increased so much above the 35 million pound historical landing average. Fishermen hauled in 126 million pounds of the crustaceans last year, but lower prices for the catch and increases in bait and fuel costs have meant that it’s hard to remain profitable.
“This is a very complex problem,” Baines said. “There’s not a simple solution to it.”