PORTLAND, Maine —The state’s largest commercial fishing trade group appears to be on the verge of being released from conditions imposed upon it after it lost an antitrust lawsuit during the Eisenhower administration.

For the past few years, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association has been in discussion with federal officials about vacating a consent decree that went into effect in 1958.

Last month, a federal prosecutor in the Department of Justice’s antitrust division filed a brief in federal court indicating that the department would not oppose releasing the Maine Lobstermen’s Association from the consent decree.

Next week, on July 21, Judge Brock Hornby is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the group’s motion to vacate the decree in U.S. District Court in Portland.

The decree was a result of a lawsuit the Department of Justice brought against the organization in 1957, after federal officials became concerned that members of the group were trying to fix the market by setting a minimum price that lobstermen would be paid for their catch.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association, which now has about 1,200 members, fought the case but lost in court. It since has been barred from engaging in any sort of activity that could affect the price that lobstermen are offered for their catch by distributors.

This includes activity or advocacy that might affect the supply of live lobsters.

The group has shied away from even general price discussions, going so far in recent years as to publicly pledge to honor the consent decree when low dockside prices have led to murmurs among fishermen about leaving their boats tied on their moorings — essentially going on strike — until the price went back up.

But when it comes to management of the fishery, the group has taken a more active approach. For years, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association has been vocal with federal and state regulators about conservation issues, fishing methods, and measures aimed at limiting the amount of gear in the water, all of which have some effect on the market supply of lobster.

The decree, the group’s officials have said, is “antiquated” and outlived its usefulness long ago. If it is vacated, they will be able to reorganize the group as a nonprofit — which would have tax benefits and allow it to expand its charitable and educational activities — and it would not have to worry about being able to lobby the government like any other industry advocacy group.

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said Monday that being released from the decree would have no effect on the group’s desire to stay out of price discussions.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association does not buy or sell lobster, she stressed, and it would continue be subject to federal laws aimed at protecting market competition.

“We’re already bound by the Sherman Antitrust Act, just like everybody else is,” she said.

In the government’s legal response to the group’s motion, federal prosecutor Michele Cano wrote that the Sherman act is “more robust” now than it was 56 years ago.

“The 1958 [decree] long ago accomplished its purpose of restoring competition in the Maine lobster industry,” Cano wrote in the brief. “Moreover, the final judgment may be deterring the MLA from engaging in legitimate, lawful advocacy and educational efforts related to fisheries management regulations.”

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....