ROCKPORT, Maine — After holding more than a dozen meetings along the Maine coast in January, state fishery officials have decided not to pursue any new management measures for Maine’s most valuable fishery.
At the behest of the Legislature, the Maine Department of Marine Resources held the meetings to find out whether fishermen might support new rules aimed at improving the long-term viability of Maine’s $339 million lobster industry. Creating a tiered licensing system that could shorten wait periods to get into the industry and short-term measures that could help prevent a repeat of last year’s soft-shell glut were among the ideas discussed at the meetings.
On Saturday, at the annual Maine Fishermen’s Forum in Rockport, DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher said the department has decided against pursuing any of the ideas that were floated. All of the proposals that were discussed pose complications that would lead to other problems, he said.
“We’re not going to pursue anything at this time,” Keliher said to a packed room of more than 100 people, most of them fishermen.
One of the issues that lobstermen faced last year was an unseasonal abundance of lobsters that were caught in spring and early summer, at a time of year when the North American lobster distribution network is ill-prepared for handling large volumes of live lobster from Maine. The timing of the supply temporarily pushed prices that Maine fishermen earned for their catch to below $2 per pound, the lowest level they had encountered in decades.
Scientists and industry officials have said that warmer-than-normal water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine caused lobsters to shed their shells earlier in the year than expected and contributed to the high numbers of lobsters that were caught. A record amount of more than 126 million pounds of lobster were caught in Maine in 2012, and warm water temperatures this winter suggest there will be an early molt and high landings again this year, according to industry officials.
Temporarily increasing the minimum catch size when landings surge, which would shift more of the landings to later in the year, after which the minimum size would revert back, was one idea. Limiting the number of days each week that fishermen could set and haul traps was another.
But Keliher said seasonally adjusting the minimum size would force fishermen to seasonally adjust the escape vents on their traps, which would be laborious and overly burdensome. Limiting the number of fishing days per week likely also would prove ineffective, he said, because many fishermen likely would fish harder on those days and end up catching the same amount that they do now over the course of a week. It would do nothing to shift a portion of landings to later in the year, when lobsters have harder shells and better shipping survival rates, and when Canadian processing plants have enough available capacity to import large amounts of Maine lobster.
“Frankly, the short-term solutions won’t work, unless they’re draconian and then it puts such a hurt on the industry that it’s not worth it,” Keliher said.
DMR also had considered proposing a tiered licensing system that would have limited fishermen to fishing 50, 400 or 800 traps. Most fishermen in Maine now are limited to 800 traps and though many buy 800 trap tags from DMR, not all of those tagged traps end up in the water.
Reducing trap limits for some fishermen who have not used all their tags in recent years would free up some tags for others waiting to get into the fishery, which for some has taken decades before their name reaches the top of the list, DMR officials have said.
Keliher said Saturday, however, that a 50-400-800 tiered licensing system likely would have increased the number of traps in the water. A fisherman with 800 tags may not fish 800 traps but, together, two fishermen each limited to 400 traps likely would, he said. And even though all evidence suggests the lobster resource in the Gulf of Maine is robust, neither fishery regulators nor fishermen are eager to see an increase in overall lobster fishing effort in the Gulf of Maine, which could push the price down even further and pose a greater threat to protected whales.
“Effort goes up in that middle tier [the way it was proposed],” Keliher said. “It needs some work.”
He added that, if DMR decides to revisit the tiered license concept, it likely will consider something more similar to the license system already in place, which differentiates between commercial, student and apprentice fishermen and between fishermen in certain age brackets.
Keliher said that though DMR has decided, for now, not to pursue any new management measures, the discussions with fishermen will prove to be useful.
Everyone agrees that lobster landings in Maine will not go up forever, though they have increased consistently and significantly since the early 1990s, he said. Continued talks among DMR officials, fishermen, lobster dealers and processors about the future of the industry will help them all prepare for a downturn in landings, whenever it may occur.
“The good thing about having this conversation now is that we have time,” Keliher said. “The health of the resource is through the roof.”