Bill to market lobster increases fees for fishermen
Rockland — A mandatory license surcharge for fishermen, dealers, and processors to boost marketing revenue promoting Maine lobster was signed into law in June by Gov. Paul LePage.
The bill, LD 486, sponsored by Thomaston representative Chuck Kruger-D, is intended to provide funds for the Lobster Marketing Collaborative to promote markets for lobsters caught or processed in the state.
Critics of the bill contend it unfairly places the burden on fishermen and small businesses.
Surcharges on licenses for harvesters, processors, wholesalers and those with transportation permits will increase each year for the next three years to raise an estimated $2.6 million to feed the lobster promotion council's marketing budget.
A Class II crab and lobster license, allowing for a captain and one sternman, will be subject to a $62.50 surcharge in 2013. In 2014, the fee will increase to $187.50, and in 2015, the surcharge will cost $375.00. Fishermen beyond the age of 70 will face smaller increases.
The complete text can be found on the Maine Legislature's website.
Danny Staples, a fisherman and lobster dealer from Cushing, said the state is not comparing apples to oranges when setting surcharges for larger and small dealers.
"I feel it is unequal, in the way I understand it", he said.
Surcharges for dealers are not set by the amount of lobster a dealer buys, but the amount of supplemental licenses the individual or business holds, said Jeff Nichols, director of communications for the Department of Marine Resources.
Supplemental licenses are determined by the amount of trucks or facilities a business may have for the transportation and storage of lobster, Nichols said.
"You can't have a company that buys 1 million pounds pay the same price as a somebody who buys 4,000 pounds," Staples said.
Staples added the surcharge is a burden on small businesses and larger dealers will absorb the cost.
The processor fee, however, is determined by volume.
Staples said he would like to be on the committee responsible for developing the marketing plan, but added daytime meetings are difficult for those who work on the water during the day.
Members are appointed by the Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher.
"We had to do something," Kruger said. " It [the bill] isn't perfect, but that's part of the process of trying to make a difference," he said.
Kruger said the bill went through six or seven works sessions, and legislators struggled with the fee structure to ensure a fair and balanced burden on all sects of the industry. He was especially concerned with fees putting smaller processors out of business.
"We tried to be fair, which is almost impossible in this case, somebody's going to get hurt. It was a complicated and mathematically dense process," he said. He added that the Department of Marine Resources worked closely with legislators on the bill.
Independent Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos of Friendship said although he voted in favor of the bill, it was not his first choice. Evangelos sponsored another bill, LD 182, that passed both chambers, but is stuck in the appropriations committee due to lack of funding. His bill would have mandated the state contribute $1 million to the industry.
With the low price per pound and prices on fuel and bait increasing, fishermen are in trouble, he said.
"The state has an obligation to assist the industry," he said, adding it's a billion dollar economic engine for the state.
Evangelos said the state had stepped in to help the tourism industry, the dairy industry and the blueberry industry with millions of dollars, but LD 486 puts the burden solely on the lobstering industry.
"The sentiment [to aid the industry] in Augusta is there, but the money isn't," he said.
Rep. Lizzie Dickerson-D, Rockland, voted against the bill because she said she did not support the governor's changes to the bill that lowered prices for larger processors. Dickerson said LePage threatened to veto the bill without the lowered fees, creating, in her view, a larger burden on smaller processors and lobstermen.
"I'm trying to help boat price and the little guys," she said.
Kruger said lobstermen he has spoken with are enthusiastic about the bill because even a 10 cent per pound increase would be profitable and more than pay for the license surcharge.
Kruger said the marketing effort to increase demand will focus on European and Asian markets as well as American markets in the Midwest. With a successful campaign, the up-tick in price is expected to be more than 10 cents per pound, he said.
The bill has a five-year sunset clause and will be revisited to make adjustments and determine its effectiveness.
"We can always adjust it," Kruger said. I just couldn't let it fail; I wasn't comfortable with that."
Courier Publications' reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
594-4401 ext. 118
Juliette primarily covers the cops and courts beat for The Courier-Gazette.
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