Lobster industry talks focus on tiered licensing, days out, marketing costPreparing industry for potential resource depletion
Friendship — Commissioner of Marine Resources Patrick Keliher told fishermen and dealers the dropping value of Maine lobster should "shock the hell out of you" at a meeting Jan. 7.
"This industry [lobster] is the last economic coastal driver we have," Keliher said.
The meeting was the first of 16 along the coast to discuss short and long-term strategies in dealing with value loss and preparing for a potential resource decline. Keliher said it was necessary to have a conversation with harvesters when dealing with big initiatives.
About 60 people attended the meeting, held at the Hahn Community Center, which lasted for more than two hours. A meeting was also held in St. George later that night.
The market glut of last summer — when 5 million pounds were landed in one month — was caused by an early shed and exacerbated by Canadian blockades of processing plants.
Last year's total catch of 123 million pounds was 18 million more than the preceding season. Yet the value was $3.7 million less.
Keliher said fishermen should not expect prices to rise this coming season.
"Landings don't maximize the value," he said, reiterating that more lobsters are not generating more revenue.
Keliher said discussing options to deal with a potential resource downturn now, while the fishery is healthy, is key to managing a potential crisis in the future.
In part to that, he said the current licensing system is not designed to respond to a crisis, and Keliher favors a three-tiered system as a balanced option for allowing access to the fishery as well as capping effort.
"There's no way to create a perfect system," Keliher conceded, adding that building consensus among fishermen is difficult.
The proposed tiered system follows a four-year period, tracking the poundage each fishermen yields to decide the amount of tags allotted — 50, 400, or 800.
It would be a packaged system, so if a lobstermen wanted — and were allowed to fish — 600 tags, they would still have to purchase the 800 tag license. "For the sake of simplicity at this point," said Deirdre Gilbert, director of marine policy for the Department of Marine Resources.
No yields over a four-year period allow a license holder 50 tags. Under 5,700 pounds allots 400 tags, and greater than 5,700 pounds allots the maximum of 800 tags.
Fishermen can move between the tiers. For those moving up from 400 to 800, one fishermen from the higher sect must either leave the fishery or move to the lower tier. Essentially, a 1 to 1 ratio.
The state would take the highest yield a fisherman lands over the four-year period for tier placement.
"What if I'm a dub fishermen?" one man asked, to which Keliher replied, "if you're a bad fisherman, I can't help you, that's not my job."
People that complete the apprenticeship program would be allowed to enter the fishery with 400 tags.
In the case of another glut, Keliher said the Lobster Advisory Council and DMR staff has considered a "days out" option, creating a system where, by license number — odd or even — fishermen would have three days to fish per week for one month to slow catch and avoid saturating the market.
Keliher described the option as a "tool in case it's needed." The system would be triggered by dealer feedback and warmer water temperatures that could prompt an early shed.
A daily time limit is also considered with this option, with regional adjustments to address tides, and a potential 1,000 pound limit.
Fishermen responded by explaining that leaving traps in the water for extended days without hauling them yields low quality lobsters.
John Hathaway, president of Shucks Maine Lobster in Richmond, said he believes in the free market, and suggested following the law of supply and demand, and cautioned against veering from that principal.
Creating new markets and new demand would be more beneficial than manipulating supply, he said. "That's how people will make more money," he said.
Hathaway added demand is not sustainable, but supply is, prompting the need to deliver lobsters in a way people are asking for it.
Other fishermen at the meeting felt their feedback to proposals would be largely ignored. "Basically, we're here to hear what you have to say, 'cause that's what's going to happen," one fishermen said.
Keliher said whatever is decided will go through the Legislature, and that he was at the meeting to listen and get an understanding of "what's happening out on the water."
The proposed tiered licensing system would deal with latent effort and aid the accessibility of the industry to those on the waiting list.
The latent effort of one million unused tags is worrisome, Keliher said, adding the state would not be able to control effort, as the capacity to increase effort at a high scale is possible.
Out of 1,150 licenses in zone D, the department figured 222 are latent — meaning no landings — for the years 2008 to 2011. The lowest 25 percent, or 233 license holders, would drop to 400 tags, and the remaining 699 licenses would continue to fish 800 traps, according to the department.
The waiting list — those who have completed the apprenticeship program — with some expecting to wait 20 years for a license, has become a burden to those hoping to make a living fishing.
There are 182 people on the list that have been waiting for more than five years. In zone D, there are 38 people on the waiting list that have waited at least five years.
One man, who has been waiting for eight years, said the changes in the program have put him through a lot. "I'll be too old to carry traps," he said of the additional time he may wait for a license.
"It's discriminatory to watch the kids in high school and college go fishing while I wait and wait and wait," he said.
Thirty-eight full-time fishermen would not be good for the existing fishermen in zone D, contended one man. "It won't make or break the industry," Keliher said.
Keliher said in zone C, an open zone, there is not a large influx to the area, and he would not expect that to be different for other zones. Yet fishermen laughed when Keliher named the towns in that designated zone, including Matinicus. "Self explanatory", one fishermen said.
Keliher said he would "bet his house" that 38 people wouldn't come into Friendship from the waiting list.
"It's like if more people jumped into commissioner and split up the money," one fisherman responded.
"I want to leave this industry prepared to react to a crisis," Keliher said, referencing the stock downturn in Southern New England. Pesticide runoff and high water temperatures contributed to a 75 percent reduction in the biomass, he said, adding that individual states and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission could not react quickly enough to manage the crisis.
"We have the ability to control our own destiny," he said.
If ideas presented at the Jan. 7 meeting are submitted to the Legislature, it would be a governor's bill introduced later in the session or at the beginning of next year, according to Keliher. " We're just gathering information," he said.
A marking component, to raise $3 million to promote Maine lobster internationally, would be funded by a tripled surcharge on licenses the first year. The cost will not be matched by the state, leaving the burden on fishermen, Keliher said.
Additionally, the cost would continue to increase over the subsequent two years, all part of a current bill drafted to phase in the increase over three years.
"If we do nothing, don't expect a change [in value]," Keliher said.
This program would include a "sunset provision" — a report determining the effectiveness of the marketing program after five years and whether to continue on the same track.
"We've got to invest as citizens," said District 49 Representative Jeffrey Evangelos, citing public support for the dairy industry. Evangelos suggested general fund money be allocated to aid the marketing funding.
"We're all in this room because we want to make money," Hathaway said, adding he doesn't want to see lobster go the way of Maine potatoes and blueberries.
Keliher said he was not at the meeting to tell fishermen how to run their business, but added he has been appointed to manage a public resource. "We need fair and equitable regulations in place to maximize value," he said.
Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.