HALLOWELL, Maine — Nine members of the Department of Marine Resources Advisory Council voted unanimously Wednesday in favor of having DMR adopt a new rule that will allow lobster processors in Maine who have an import/export license to process lobsters from Canada that exceed the maximum size limit for lobsters that can be caught in Maine.
Col. Joseph Fessenden, head of Maine Marine Patrol, told the panel that the new rule is intended to benefit processors, who up until now have had to set such lobsters aside and ship them whole and alive out of state for resale.
Fessenden said that by not being able to process oversized lobsters, many processors have sustained significant losses because the large lobsters they had paid for often died before they could be sold and shipped out of state.
“It was unbelievable, the number of lobsters that just rotted and that they had to throw off the dock,” Fessenden told the council.
The concept was endorsed earlier this year by the Legislature, which then instructed DMR to craft a rule that would allow the practice. With Wednesday’s vote by the advisory council, the rule will now go into effect.
The Legislature mandated a two-year sunset clause in the new rule so that legislators can address any problems that may arise if the rule is going to last beyond October 2013. DMR officials have said that processors will have to keep precise records of their Canadian imports and provide that information to DMR, which will allow state officials to keep track of any effect the new rule might have on Canadian imports.
“If it doesn’t work out, it could be repealed by the Legislature,” Fessenden said.
Lobster fishermen opposed the proposal when it was being debated by legislators earlier this year. Many, including the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said they worried the practice could undermine the reputation of Maine’s lobster fishery, which has voluntarily adopted many conservation practices over the past several decades. By marking and returning egg-producing females to the water and by adopting maximum and minimum sizes for lobster that Maine fishermen can keep, the lobster resource in the Gulf of Maine has fared well compared with other commercially harvested species that have been overfished, industry officials have said.
Allowing processors to handle oversized lobsters from Canada could result in unscrupulous Maine fishermen trying to harvest oversized lobsters and pass them off as Canadian lobsters, some lobstermen have said. It also could result in an increase of oversized lobsters coming in from Canada to Maine for processing, which also would harm the reputation of Maine’s lobster fishery.
South Thomaston lobster fisherman Bob Baines, who is a member of the advisory council and of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association board of directors, said that though he opposed changing the law to allow the practice, he would not oppose the proposed rule change.
He said he and other lobstermen have been assured by Fessenden that Marine Patrol will be able to monitor the chain of custody of Canadian lobsters that come across the border to make sure that any oversized lobsters illegally caught in Maine can’t be snuck into the Canadian supply.
“We were pretty much standing on principal,” Baines said after the meeting.
In other business, the advisory council also voted unanimously Wednesday to require active shrimp dealers with state licenses to report landings to DMR officials on a weekly basis rather than doing it once a month.
Last month, because of concerns about overfishing, regulators with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission reduced the allowable catch for shrimp in the Gulf of Maine from 4,000 metric tons to 2,000.
Landings for shrimp in the past two winters have exceeded the limit the commission had set, even though both seasons were closed earlier than expected by regulators. As a result, many shrimp fishermen in eastern Maine felt they were not given enough opportunity to fish for the migratory crustacean, which tends to move along the shore from west to east as winter progresses. To address this problem, the commission changed the starting date for the approaching shrimp season from Dec. 1 to Jan. 2.
By requiring Maine shrimp dealers to file reports weekly instead of monthly, Maine fisheries regulators have said they hope to have a better handle on the amount of shrimp being harvested than they have had the past two seasons.