News Feature

Deer Isle
Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, January 10, 2013
DMR holds meetings about future of lobster industry
Meeting on Island January 16

by Jessica Brophy

On Wednesday, January 16, at 4 p.m. at the Deer Isle-Stonington High School cafeteria, representatives from the Maine Department of Marine Resources will be on hand to discuss the state of the lobster industry with local fishermen and community members.

The series of meetings, 16 in total up and down the coast, are meant to share the results of a state-mandated research report on lobster licensing completed by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. The meeting is also an opportunity, according to a DMR press release, for the DMR to discuss potential rules changes and hear from fishermen about their concerns given 2012’s low boat prices and historic high landings.

DMR Commissioner Pat Keliher said 2012 was “quite a year” in the fishery, including “record high landings, low boat prices, Canadian processing constraints, and discussion about changing the state’s lobster marketing strategy have created both challenges and opportunities.”

Keliher continued that the DMR will bring forward “some concepts regarding the future of the licensing system to these meetings and will be seeking input and feedback all along the coast.”

During the summer of 2012, the Lobster Advisory Council held a series of meetings, including a “Quality and Profitability” subcommittee meeting in Camden on August 1, to address rules changes. At that time, some of the suggested changes included limiting days out or instating a curfew during peak months, trap reduction, rolling closures, gauge changes, quotas and emergency shut down powers granted to the DMR in case of extremely low boat prices.

While landings have continued to rise—2012’s landings were more than double the landings of 2000—value for those landings have not kept pace. According to the GMRI report, when adjusted for inflation, the price per pound that vessels received in 2011 was equivalent to their price in 1960.

Ronnie Trundy, manager of the Stonington Co-op, said he sees the 2012 low prices as an ongoing problem that won’t be resolved until the “market can absorb the landings or the landings go down.” That said, he disapproves of many of the suggested changes. “I’d hate to see them up and change the rules for one fluke year,” he said.

Contents of the GMRI report

The GMRI report on lobster licensing, “An Independent Evaluation of the Maine Limited Entry Licensing System for Lobster and Crab,” was released late last year. The 80-page document identified four key deficiencies and specific recommendations for each.

The first major deficiency noted by the report is the problem of latent effort, or licenses/trap tags issued that are not used. According to the report, 22 percent of issued licenses did not record any landings in 2011. Latent effort is a concern primarily because if all license holders decided to fish at their maximum capacity, it would represent a 39 percent increase in fishing effort. This could put a lot more pressure on the fishery.

The GMRI suggested establishing a tiered licensing system with four tiers with graduated trap tag issuance. The report’s reasoning is entry-level fishermen could enter with fewer traps, and therefore not overwhelm the fishery. Existing license-holders would be classified according to current landings and tag history. Access to the lower tiers would be open to anyone who completes the apprentice program, and access to the higher tiers could be on an exit-to-entry ratio (which GMRI suggests as 1-to-1).

Long waiting periods were identified as a second major problem with the current system. In every zone but Zone C, lobstermen who have completed the apprentice program are put on waiting lists. Each zone requires a specific number of trap tags to retire or go un-renewed before someone on the waiting list can get a license. The GMRI report said “it could take 20 years or more for all 296 current waiting list members to get a commercial license.” This does not include student apprentices, who can get a license after completing the apprentice program provided they complete the program requirements before they turn 18. That number also does not include those currently in the apprentice program in zones other than Zone C. The report recommends the zones with exit-to-entry ratios to relax those ratios. Currently, some zones have a 5-to-1 ratio, and several other zones have a 3-to-1 ratio.

The third deficiency is fairly straight forward. The GMRI report said that retiring tags are being “under-accounted,” meaning that only the number of tags most recently fished by a license holder is counted toward the exit-to-entry ratio; GMRI recommends counting the maximum number of traps associated with a license toward that ratio, as many fishermen scale down as they near retirement.

The final deficiency with the current licensing system is its inability to respond to a resource crisis. The current conservation measures have not led to a reduced effort; the report states that fishing capacity and pressure has increased in the past decade. The lobster landings have grown along with the increased pressure; however, if the resource were to decline the report said “the current system would not be able to respond fast enough to prevent overfishing, which could be catastrophic to Maine’s lobster industry and coastal communities.”

The GMRI report recommends that the DMR “work closely with the industry to develop a Fishery Management Plan that establishes clear goals for the fishery.” Such a plan would develop “significant new restrictions on effort” to be triggered in case of environmental changes or disease among lobsters.

The report did not recommend free-market transferability of licenses (in other words, the ability to sell a lobster license to the highest bidder). The report does say that limited, in-family transferability may be an option for Maine in the future. The report also discusses the transferability of tags (selling tags not used by one fisherman to be used by another). The report said there were several concerns and potential pitfalls with this, including exceeding current trap limits, disrupting the current owner-operator system and a potential increase in effort on the fishery.

Overall, the report states that “scientific and industry consensus suggestions that the number of traps actively being fished is near the maximum for the resource and gear density.” The report’s suggestions, then, are meant to promote a set of policies that will reduce waiting times for those on the waiting list for a license while preserving the fishery for those who are already in it.

Other meetings held by the DMR nearby, for those who may not be able to make it at 4 p.m. on December 16 at the high school include a meeting on Wednesday, January 16 at 11 a.m. at the Bucksport Town Office; Thursday, January 17 at 11 a.m. at the Vinalhaven Town Office; in Machias on Thursday, January 24 in Room 102 of the Science Building at the University of Maine at Machias and in Jonesport at the Jonesport Firestation on Friday, January 25 at noon. Due to weather and flu-season changes, the DMR recommends checking its website for an up-to-date list.