ELLSWORTH, Maine — In recent years, lobster fishermen and processors have worked together to push for an increase in the state’s lobster processing capacity.

The goal of their cooperation has been to boost the economic impact of Maine’s annual lobster catch by processing more lobster in the state and exporting less of it for processing in Canada.

But there is one issue of late about which processors and lobstermen have not seen eye-to-eye: whether Maine processors should be allowed to process lobsters that Maine fishermen are not allowed to catch.

Maine has fairly strict laws about the size of lobsters that fishermen can bring ashore. If they are too small or too big, fishermen must return them to the water. The purpose of these existing laws, which are supported by Maine lobstermen, is to help make sure there are plenty of catchable lobsters in the Gulf of Maine for the foreseeable future. If they are small, in a few years they will grow into larger lobsters that are worth more money. If they are big, they can produce a lot more baby lobsters than their smaller counterparts, which will help ensure the future supply of the species.

But the same size limits that exist in Maine do not exist in Canada, which can result in larger or “oversize” lobsters coming across the border into the state to the processors that are located here. Up until now, Maine processors have had to set such lobsters aside and transfer them, whole and alive, out of state.

That is about to change, however, as Maine Department of Marine Resources is preparing to implement a new rule that the Legislature told them this past summer to pursue. The rule will allow processors that import oversize lobsters from Canada to process them in Maine, which Maine fishermen are not happy about.

“The Maine Lobstermen’s Association is against it because of the sustainability that Maine has a record for,” MLA Vice President Jim Dow, a Bar Harbor fisherman, said Wednesday. “It looks negative for the state because of the marketing [implications].”

With approximately 1,200 members, MLA is the largest commercial fishermen’s organization in Maine. Maine has approximately 6,000 licensed commercial lobstermen who, according to state statistics, caught 94 million pounds of lobster in 2010, which was sold for $313 million.

The issue of changing Maine’s laws concerning what size lobsters can be caught and how they are caught has been a hot-button issue in Maine for several years.

In 2007, state legislators rejected a proposal to allow dragged lobsters to be landed in Maine after lobstermen said doing so would undercut the conservation measures they have practiced for decades. Earlier this year then-DMR Commissioner Norman Olsen made public comments about revisiting the dragging issue and was met with fierce criticism from lobstermen, which is believed to be among the reasons he abruptly resigned his post in July.

The DMR Advisory Council, which consists of seafood industry representatives, is expected to meet sometime in November to vote on the proposed new processing rule, which the council must approve before it can go into effect. A date for the council meeting has not yet been set.

According to one lobster processor, the new rule will be a welcome change from the current requirements, which he called “cumbersome.”

John Hathaway of Shucks Maine Lobster in Richmond said he already buys lobster from Canada when the supply of Maine lobster is low, which typically is after Nov. 1 or in May or early June. During the winter and early spring, he said, the supply is too low and the price too high for him to process lobster.

Now, when he finds oversize lobsters in his shipments from Canada, Hathaway said, he has to stop what he is doing and set the large lobsters aside in secured crates. He is not allowed to process them and instead has to sell them out of state.

“We’re not in the business of selling lobster and certainly not of selling oversized live lobster,” Hathaway said. “It’s a huge nuisance. You’re only going to lose money.”

The new rule will make only one substantial difference, the processor said. Instead of transporting the large lobster out of Maine live, processors will be able to process them first and make money off them through the markets they normally serve. There are only a handful of licensed processors and importers in Maine, he said, so the volume of oversize Canadian lobsters coming through Maine is fairly small.

Hathaway said he agreed that the marketing of “Maine lobster” should adhere to expectations that the fishery is managed sustainably by returning large lobsters to the ocean. He said he is willing to label large Canadian lobsters that he processes differently from the lobster he normally deals with so that it does not say “Maine lobster” on the label.

“That’s not what the Maine brand is, and I agree with that,” Hathaway said.

Peter McAleney, a lobster importer and distributor who runs New Meadows Lobster in Portland, said Friday that Canadian exporters put large, one-clawed lobsters in shipments to Maine because it’s an easy way to get rid of a lobster that’s hard to sell. Being able to process such lobsters will make operations simpler for Maine processors and help them avoid losing money, he said.

“What am I supposed to do with it?,” said McAleney, who sometimes gets one-clawed oversize lobsters in his Canadian shipments. “I’m for [the rule change].”

Patrick Keliher, acting commissioner for DMR, testified in favor of passing the new law when the Legislature considered it earlier this year. In his testimony, he said the state changed some of its processing laws last year to allow processors to sell split tails, claws and knuckles in the shell. Despite concerns, state and industry officials were able to make sure that Maine’s mandated lobster conservation laws were not compromised.

Keliher said Thursday that by talking to the department’s Marine Patrol division, which enforces fisheries regulations in Maine, he and senior Marine Patrol officials believe a chain of custody that ensures the large lobsters come from Canada and nowhere else can be established and enforced. This should help address concerns that people might try to harvest illegal large lobsters in Maine waters.

“We’re very confident we’ll not see people trying to harvest oversized lobsters [here],” Keliher said.

He said that to help make sure the law does not have unwanted, long-term consequences, the Legislature included a two-year sunset clause in the law. That means the Legislature will have to approve the measure again two years from now if processors are going to be able to process oversize lobsters after October 2013.

Keliher said the processors will have to keep track of the volume of oversized lobsters from Canada that they process and then provide that information to DMR, which then will share it with legislators as the rule comes up for review in 2013.

Dow, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association vice president, said the organization is concerned that the new law could result in an increase of oversize lobsters coming into Maine for processing, which he suggested would further undermine the marketing appeal of the sustainability of Maine’s lobster fishery. Even if the DMR Advisory Council approves the new rule next month, he said, MLA officials plan to keep track of what kind of lobsters are imported from Canada.

“If this becomes a big issue, we’ll want to revisit this,” Dow said. “We’re going to be watching it carefully.”

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....