MOUNT DESERT, Maine — The state’s lobster industry needs to develop a road map for changes it likely will have to contend with in the not-too-distant future.
Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, stressed that message Tuesday to a few dozen lobstermen and other people who attended an industry meeting at the local Neighborhood House.
The state of the resource — the lobster population in the Gulf of Maine — is good right now, he said, which is why it’s a good time to start talking about what should be done when it inevitably starts to decline.
The meeting held Tuesday, one of a dozen planned throughout the state from March 1 through April 7, is part of a dialogue with lobstermen that Keliher hopes will lead to a vision for the future for the fishery.
The state does not have a fishery management plan for lobster — or, Keliher said, for most of its fisheries. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission does, he added, but the commission would not take action until Maine’s annual harvest declines to 35 million pounds.
With last year’s statewide haul at just shy of 126 million pounds, state officials would want to take action before landings drop 90 million pounds, Keliher said. If Maine had a plan, it could start reacting sooner, and could do so more quickly, than the interstate commission or federal regulators could, he said.
“The sky is not falling,” he said. “We have enough time to deal with this situation.”
Unlike most traditional fisheries, lobster harvests have boomed in the past 25 years. In 1988, Maine lobstermen caught a total of 21.7 million pounds of lobster, roughly one-sixth of what they caught last year.
But the increased catches belie a multitude of economic, regulatory and environmental challenges that fishermen continue to struggle with.
The average statewide price lobstermen earned for their catch last year was $2.89, which is only 10 cents higher than it was in 1988 and more than a dollar less than it was from 2004 through 2007. Unseasonably warm water and resulting high landings of lobster in the spring of 2012 contributed to the low boat prices of recent years.
Shell disease is creeping into the Gulf of Maine and sometime this year — for the second time in the past five years — federal regulators are expected to tighten lobster gear restrictions that they hope will help prevent whale entanglements.
On Tuesday, Keliher repeated another message that he has brought up at all the recent industry meetings: something needs to be done about unused or underused licenses that DMR issues every year. He said that 2,354 license holders — or 48 percent of licensed fishermen — caught less than 14 percent of the statewide haul in 2011. DMR has estimated that 1.2 million permitted traps that are not being used could be set off the coast of Maine at any time.
The issue, called “latency,” comes into play for a host of issues facing the fishery. A sudden increase in traps in the water could dilute profits for fishermen, who continue to contend with paying for high expenses such as bait and fuel while getting paid the lowest dock prices they’ve had in the past 20 years. It also means decades-long wait times for people trying to get licenses because those who have them but aren’t using them won’t give them up, according to Keliher.
Latency also figures heavily into protecting whales, Keliher said, because federal officials assume all those latent traps could end up in the water at any time when they enact new regulations.
Carl Wilson, a lobster biologist with DMR, told fishermen at Tuesday’s meeting that state officials do not believe adjusting the number of traps in the water would have a noticeable impact on the lobster resource. Reducing the number of traps in use could have meaningful social or economic benefits for fishermen, he said, but it likely would not have any meaningful biological impact on the gulf’s lobster population.
“It would be like trying to club a cow to death with a fly swatter,” Wilson said.