PORTLAND, Maine — In a ruling that was expected, a federal judge has rescinded a consent decree that had been imposed on the Maine Lobstermen’s Association since 1958.
The federal Department of Justice, which had implemented the decree against the Maine Lobstermen’s Association 56 years ago after the association lost an antitrust lawsuit, had indicated it would not object to the restrictions being lifted.
In a prepared statement released Thursday, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association indicated that having the decree vacated after adhering to it for more than 50 years was like a “breath of fresh air.” With about 1,200 members, the lobstermen’s group is the largest commercial fishing industry trade association in Maine.
Judge Brock Hornby issued his ruling in repealing the final judgment on Monday in U.S. District Court in Portland.
Mary Ann Mason, a Washington,D.C.-based attorney who represents the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said in the statement that the decree had long outlived its purpose and was no longer needed to protect market competition.
“The lobster fishing industry has changed fundamentally in the more than five decades since the final judgment was entered,” Mason said in the statement. “During that time, federal and state environmental, economic and fisheries management regulations have fundamentally altered the industry.”
The decree was a result of a lawsuit the Department of Justice brought against the organization in 1957, after federal officials became concerned that members of the group were trying to fix the market by setting a minimum price that lobstermen would be paid for their catch.
The decree has prohibited the Maine Lobstermen’s Association from engaging in any sort of activity that could affect the price that lobstermen are offered for their catch by distributors. This includes activity or advocacy that might affect the supply of live lobsters — something the Maine Lobstermen’s Association says has inhibited the group’s freedom to advocate on behalf of its members on management issues such as gear restrictions, conservation issues and fishing methods.
In the Department of Justice’s legal response to the group’s motion to have the final judgment dismissed, federal prosecutor Michele Cano essentially agreed with the association’s position.
“The 1958 [decree] long ago accomplished its purpose of restoring competition in the Maine lobster industry,” Cano wrote in the brief. “Moreover, the final judgment may be deterring the MLA from engaging in legitimate, lawful advocacy and educational efforts related to fisheries management regulations.”
Since the decree was imposed in 1958, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association has steered clear of any discussions about price, though it has kept track of prices offered by dealers in New England. The group’s reluctance to weigh in on pricing issues has been strong enough that in recent years, when low dockside prices have led to murmurs among fishermen about leaving their boats tied on their moorings until the price went back up, the association has issued public statements pledging to honor the consent decree.
Maine Lobstermen’s Association officials have said the group will continue to avoid buying or selling lobster and that, even with the dismissal of the consent decree, it has no intention of getting into discussions about price.
The Sherman Antitrust Act, which has been made more restrictive than it was in 1958, prevents the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and all other trade organizations from trying to set a minimum price in any market, group officials noted.
Having the consent decree lifted also means the group will be able to re-organize itself as a nonprofit organization, which has tax benefits and will allow it to increase its educational and charitable activities, according to Maine Lobstermen’s Association officials.