AUGUSTA, Maine — Though a similar proposal was roundly rejected in 2007, a bill that would allow lobsters caught in drag nets to be kept and sold in Maine is back before the Legislature.

Like the last time around, there is strong opposition from Maine lobster fishermen against the bill. Unlike 2007, however, the Maine Department of Marine Resources supports the proposal.

The bill, LD 1097, has been submitted by Sen. Anne Haskell of Portland with the aim of letting groundfishermen keep lobsters that they drag up in their nets as bycatch. State law now forbids the practice, which Maine groundfishermen say puts the state at an economic disadvantage compared with Massachusetts, where the practice is legal.

Many Maine groundfishermen take their catch to Gloucester, Mass., so they don’t have to throw lobsters that come up in their nets back into the sea.

Maine lobstermen have spoken out against the proposal, saying it will undermine decades of lobster conservation measures that have helped boost the Gulf of Maine lobster population. Unlike many other commercial fisheries, landings of lobster have increased steadily and dramatically since the early 1990s, with Maine lobstermen cumulatively catching 126 million pounds and earning $339 million (both record amounts) in 2012.

The Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee held a public hearing on Haskell’s latest proposal on April 8. A public work session on the bill, at which members of the committee will discuss the merits of the measure and solicit information from others in attendance, is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday, April 22.

Six years ago, then-DMR Commissioner George Lapointe told legislators that the department opposed the idea because it would put added strain on the resource through increased fishing effort and mortality and because it would create further divisions in Maine’s fishing industry.

At the April 8 public hearing, Deputy DMR Commissioner Meredith Mendelson told legislators that DMR has signed on this time around because lobsters caught in dragger nets in the Gulf of Maine already are being brought ashore in Massachusetts and because the department believes the practice can be managed to prevent harming lobster stocks.

The lobsters would have to come from a designated area roughly 50 miles offshore, where Maine lobstermen do not set their traps, and only groundfish boats — not scallop boats or other types of draggers — would be allowed to keep lobster as bycatch, she said. Portland would be the only Maine port where dragged lobsters could be landed, which will enable DMR to keep a close eye on how many are being harvested, And, she added, DMR would have the authority to adjust the dragged lobster landings limit.

Changing the law will help keep groundfishing boats in Maine, Mendelson said, which will encourage diversity in Maine’s fishing industry and help preserve Portland’s working waterfront.

“The department believes that this bill is an appropriate step to take in helping to sustain the Maine groundfish industry for future generations,” Mendelson said.

According to DMR statistics, groundfish landings in Maine amounted to approximately $5 million in direct income to fishermen in 2012.

For the Portland Fish Exchange, the fishermen who bring their catch there and companies such as Vessel Services that provide fuel, ice and other items to the Portland groundfish fleet, the bill is seen as possible boost for their industry. Some traditional groundfish stocks have been recovering in the Northeast but others continue to face serious challenges. Allowing a limited amount of lobster bycatch to be landed in Portland under the watchful eye of DMR can help boost the industry and its economic impact in Maine, supporters say.

Bert Jongerden, general manager of the Portland Fish Exchange, said Thursday that the bill creates no new incentives for groundfishermen to haul up lobster in their nets. Federal limits on bycatch amounts and state limits on size and whether the lobster is a reproducing female would not change, he said. So the only incentive for Maine groundfish boats would be to bring whatever they catch to Portland instead of Gloucester.

Jongerden added that about 100,000 pounds of dragged lobster, or less than 1 percent of the amount caught last year by Maine lobstermen, are landed in Gloucester each year, which he described as “a drop in a bucket.” However, groundfish landings in Maine likely would increase by 15 million pounds, from 5 million to around 20 million, if LD 1097 is passed into law, he said. That’s more than $20 million worth of fish that would pass through Portland and does not include the additional money on ice, fuel, food and gear that those boats now spend in Gloucester but would spend in Portland instead.

“That’s stuff they could be doing in the state of Maine,” Jongerden said.

Marty Odlin, whose family owns and operates three groundfish boats, said Thursday that they and their crew members all live in Maine, where they would like to base their operations. If they could bring their lobster bycatch in Maine, they would, he said — and they would bring a few million pounds of fish with them.

“If the law changes, we’d come back to Portland for sure,” Odlin said. “It would make an enormous difference.”

At the April 8 hearing, however, some lobster biologists testified that allowing lobsters to be kept as bycatch could harm the reproductive health of the gulf’s lobster stocks. Diane Cowan of The Lobster Conservancy in Friendship and Robert Steneck of the University of Maine each indicated that the practice could harm large lobsters, which typically produce a high amount of lobster larvae.

Representatives from the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, the largest commercial fishing advocacy organization in Maine, and the Downeast Lobstermen’s Association also weighed in, saying that harvesting lobster caught in drag nets would run counter to the industry’s successful marketing efforts to have Maine’s lobster trap fishery certified as sustainable.

In testimony provided earlier this month to the legislative committee, Maine Lobstermen’s Association President David Cousens said that while the group supports efforts to diversify commercial fishing in Maine and to have a viable groundfish industry, allowing groundfish boats to each keep hundreds of lobsters that get dragged up in their nets will not revive Maine’s groundfish fleet. Massachusetts still will have a larger maximum size limit for lobster, which will continue to lure fishermen to Gloucester, he said, and the management challenges facing the Northeast groundfish fleet will remain.

On Thursday, Cousens said Maine’s trap fishery has little impact on the health of lobsters and the ocean bottom habitat but draggers can damage both. And there is an issue of fairness, he added, because lobstermen cannot keep groundfish they find in their traps.

“Dragger-caught lobsters are an inferior product,” Cousens said, “[and] I can’t keep one codfish on my boat.”

Dragging for lobsters has been banned in most U.S. state waters and is not allowed anywhere in the Canadian lobster fishery, he added.

“It’s not the right thing to do,” Cousens said. “Maine should stick with its proven conservation measures and not allow lobster dragged in federal waters to be landed in Maine.”

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....