The groundfishing industry in the Northeast is going through a period of painful transition, but its future today is more secure than it has been in many years.
Recent years have been tough for the fishing fleet as reduced catch and higher fuel prices have put increasing pressures on boats and their crews. Strict federal management of fisheries along Maine’s coast has allowed fish stocks to begin to rebound.
Groundfishing is not a lost cause and neither are Maine-based fishing boats.
Today, the question is whether the state has the will to position itself for the future and to protect the working waterfront infrastructure necessary to support groundfishing.
Right now, federal regulations allow groundfishing boats fishing far from shore to catch and land lobster. Called “by-catch,” the lobsters help to diversify the economics of groundfishing without harming Maine’s lobster fishery.
Unfortunately, Maine is the only state in the U.S. that doesn’t allow groundfishing boats to land the lobsters they catch while fishing for other species. The result: Maine fishing boats with Maine crews and Maine owners have little choice but to land their catch in Gloucester, Mass., where the “by-catch” is allowed.
Maine law has unnecessarily pushed the state’s groundfishing fleet out of the state.
To be clear, it is legal for groundfishing boats to catch up to 500 lobsters per trip in federal waters. The lobsters must meet state and federal standards. The point of contention is whether those lobsters can be landed in Maine or if they must go elsewhere.
LD 1097 would allow those lobsters to be landed in Portland, under the close supervision and monitoring of the Maine Department of Marine Resources. The bill ensures that there will be no impact on Maine’s lobster fishery and gives the department the authority to institute new restrictions if necessary.
This small change in Maine law could have a big impact on the groundfishing and related industries in Maine. The Portland Fish Exchange currently handles about 5 million pounds of groundfish per year. That number is expected to swell to 20 million pounds if the boats with lobster “by-catch” are allowed to return.
That increase is good for buyers and sellers. It will help to support other small businesses, such as equipment suppliers and repair facilities, and it will ensure that Maine maintains the infrastructure necessary to sustain a fishing fleet.
In 2012, Maine recorded 126 million pounds of trap-caught lobsters. By comparison, groundfishing boats landed less than 100,000 pounds, or less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the total. The impact on the close-to-shore lobster fishery is tiny.
Additionally, allowing lobsters caught by groundfishing boats won’t hurt the certification of the fishery or the state’s reputation for producing the highest quality lobsters. Today, many of the lobsters caught in federal waters and landed in Gloucester are put on trucks and shipped to Maine for sale.
And, instead of hurting the Maine brand, the lobsters improve it. The deep-water lobsters, most often caught more than 120 miles from the coast, tend to be larger and of higher quality than the lobsters caught close to shore.
Maine has the largest coastline in New England but accounts for only a small percentage of the landings of groundfish. It’s time for that to change.
Bringing the groundfishing boats back to Maine could create between 175 and 350 jobs in the state, ranging from processors to welders to deckhands.
For many members of the Maine fishing community, the issue has been boiled down to “us” versus “them,” lobstermen versus groundfishing. But the divide is artificial. The lobsters are being caught today. They are even being sold in Maine, only indirectly with a stop first in Massachusetts. It won’t undermine the trap fishery to allow groundfishing boats to land in Portland under close supervision.
Instead, the increased pier and fishing business will help to keep fuel and ice costs lower for all fishermen. It’ll help keep a working waterfront vibrant and benefit the overall economy through new jobs, new revenue and new activity.
Right now Maine is missing out on business that belongs here. A small change in the law can fix it.
Bert Jongerden is the general manager of the Portland Fish Exchange, a nonprofit all display seafood auction that opened in 1986. It is quasi-public and governed by a board of directors representing seafood buyers and sellers, Portland residents and government leaders.