More than 120 fishermen and community members gathered at the Deer Isle-Stonington High School cafeteria on Wednesday, January 16, to hear from the Maine Department of Marine Resources about potential changes to the lobster industry. Several more fishermen located on various islands tuned in via videoconferencing technology.
The DMR’s presentation covered three key areas related to the lobster fishery. First, a collection of potential emergency measures which could be activated if the fishery experiences another crisis like the one in the summer of 2012; second, changes to the lobster licensing system in response to a state-mandated study of the system and third, the details of the lobster marketing plan.
DMR Commissioner Pat Keliher said all of these discussions were aimed at protecting lobster as a public resource. “The way we’ve been landing lobster is not maximizing their value,” said Keliher.
Keliher started the meeting by talking about June of 2012, when shedders—freshly molted lobsters—arrived early and the market was flooded with five million pounds of lobsters it was unprepared for.
“My phone was ringing off the hook, with people asking me to do something,” said Keliher, noting that he had no legal authority to do anything in that situation. Keliher said his goal was to find out whether the industry thought there should be some mechanism in place to respond to a crisis begun by these five million extra pounds that crashed the boat price for lobsters and helped keep that price low all summer.
One option, said Keliher, is to create an emergency measure that the DMR can put into effect for a very limited amount of time—such as the last two weeks of June and the first two weeks of July—if certain triggers are met. These triggers would be determined by legislation, but might include a boat price below a certain threshold. Once triggered, measures could include changing gauge sizes and/or limiting days out to three days per week with a 4 p.m. per day curfew, with an overall goal of slowing down landings to allow the market to absorb the product.
Local fisherman Robert Williams said he wouldn’t mind seeing fewer boats fishing until 8 at night during a glut.
Several fishermen expressed concerns with the idea, including questions about how the triggers would be determined, whether the slowdown or changes would be regional or by zone to account for differences between different areas of the state, and about how such measures might affect inshore fishermen more than those who fish farther out.
There were also concerns voiced about boats heading out in inclement weather on a three-day-per-week schedule. Another fisherman asked whether the DMR had talked to major buyers and processors like Garbo about the glut.
“Is it a real glut or a way to make a bit more money on their end?” asked the fisherman.
Keliher said the DMR had not talked with someone from Garbo, but the blockade of trucks carrying Maine lobster into Canada had been real and had contributed to a problem.
Other fishermen said the fishery changes from year to year, and it would be a bad idea to make changes based on one unusual year.
DMR biologist Carl Wilson said that with the increased landings since 2005—up more than 54 million pounds in that seven year period—it’s difficult to know what do expect.
“We’ve been going up for such a long time, we don’t know what the new normal is,” said Wilson.
No consensus was reached on the potential emergency measures; Keliher stressed that any such plans would be brought back to fishermen for public comment.
The lobster license system
Deputy Commissioner Meredith Mendelson shared with the crowd the problems with the current licensing system and a potential model for a new system.
Currently, Zone C is the only open zone. This means that any fisherman who completes the apprenticeship program can get a lobster license. Other zones have long waiting lists, which could (at the current rates of exit/entry) take decades to empty.
Another problem, Mendelson said, is dealing with federal law, particularly whale preservation laws. Currently, many trap tags are purchased but not used by fishermen—the study conducted by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute concluded as much as 39 percent. However, said Mendelson, for the purposes of whale regulations, every trap tag is counted as a fished trap. Therefore, there is some incentive to cut out latent effort.
A third problem with the current licensing system, according to the DMR, is that it is not well-positioned to respond to a sudden decline in lobster.
The proposed new license system would lessen latent effort by categorizing license holders by their best year of landings from 2008-2011. There would be three tiers, a 50 trap tier, a 400 trap tier and an 800 trap tier. Any fisherman who has landed poundage more than the 25th percentile would be set at 800 traps. For Zone C, this would mean anyone who has landed more than 8,090 pounds in at least one year between 2008-11. This represents 601 of the 964 licenses held by Zone C fishermen.
Those who landed less than 8,090 pounds during those years, but still landed something at least one year, would be placed in the 400-trap tier. This would be 201 of the 964 Zone C license holders.
License holders who did not land any lobster between 2008-11 would be allowed to fish 50 traps. Mendelson said there may be some appeals process for lobstermen who did not have landings then (perhaps due to military service or college attendance).
Movement between the tiers would be allowed, but it would be limited. Currently, the proposal only limits movement from the 400-trap tier to the 800-trap tier, with a 1:1 exit-entry ratio.
In a follow-up email, Mendelson said there may be some exception granted to Zone C in the proposed licensing structure, as it is currently an open zone and does not need a mechanism to help fishermen get into the fishery.
Mendelson said there is still some debate about whether there will be a mechanism to encourage those in the 800-trap tier to reduce to the 400-trap tier when they no longer need a license for 800 traps. Recalibration is an option, she said, but it poses its own set of problems.
Several fishermen said if there was a way to guarantee they wouldn’t lose access to the full number of trap tags they were allowed to fish, they would only purchase what they needed. But, since they worry the DMR will change the rule based on number of trap tags purchased in the past, fishermen are more likely to purchase trap tags they don’t need.
“If there were people in this room who trusted you people [at the DMR], there wouldn’t be a problem,” said fisherman Julie Eaton.
The marketing plan, first announced in June of 2012, was also discussed briefly at the meeting.
The marketing proposal, which includes more or less discontinuing the current Maine Lobster Promotion Council (currently funded by lobstermen by license surcharges for about $350,000 per year) and instead embarking on an ambitious, $3 million dollar generic marketing campaign similar to the campaigns to promote milk or wild blueberries.
Fisherman Justin Boyce asked whether money couldn’t be used to increase processing capacity in Maine instead of on marketing. Annie Tselikis of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association said more processing capacity in Maine might help, but that processed product still needed to be sold.
“There’s a lot to be gained,” said Tselikis. “I think it’s a good opportunity.”
The opportunity will cost license-holders, dealers and processors over the next few years. If implemented, the surcharge to the lobster licenses will increase each year for three years. For example, a Class III license would have a $281 surcharge the first year, a $562 surcharge the second year and a $731 surcharge the third year (the maximum surcharge).
The dealer surcharge will be $750 the first year, $1,500 the second year and $1,950 the third year. The processor surcharge will be $1,000 the first, $2,000 the second and $2,600 the third. Harvesters will carry about 75 percent of the cost, with the dealers and processors carrying the other 25 percent.
The Legislature will take up the marketing plan this session. Legislators are expected to include a five-year “sunset” clause, meaning the law will expire in five years unless renewed by the legislature.