Would-be lobstermen struggle with long waiting list
James Anderson, 39, has worked as a sternman for 17 years but said he won't be able to get his own license until age 79.
Anderson is 40th on a list of 53 people in Zone D waiting to purchase a commercial lobstering license.
"When you stop young people from getting a license, they can't make a living and they leave. When you do this, you suffocate towns," Anderson said. "The state is defrauding people that have the right, the heritage and family to fish."
To be eligible for a commercial license, one must complete the apprenticeship program. In a minimum of two years, a fisherman must document 1,000 hours, 200 fishing days and pass a U.S. Coast Guard-approved fishing vessel training course.
Before one lobstermen on the waiting list can buy a license, 4,000 tags for traps need to be retired. Lobstermen are allotted 800 tags each year, so an approximate ratio would mean that five lobstermen would need to retire before one would get a commercial license.
Commercial license holders are reticent to retire their permits. "When will they ever give their licenses up? I have 75-year-old friends that say they will go lobstering until they die," said Anderson.
The average age of Maine lobstermen is 50, according to the Department of Marine Resources.
In 1997, the state introduced a limited entry system, now called the apprenticeship program. That legislation also called for an 800-trap limit. Deirdre Gilbert, director of marine policy for the DMR, said the state did not want to impose a limit on traps as well as allow more fishermen to enter the industry.
To acquire additional tags for lost gear, fishermen must have an affidavit signed by a warden and travel to Hallowell to the Department of Marine Resources to get additional tags, each costing 50 cents.
Initially, regulations required that when one lobsterman left the industry, a fisherman on the waiting list would be granted a permit. Anderson said he believes a 1 to 1 ratio is more realistic and equitable.
Anderson said agencies such as the Department of Marine Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency strangle the fishing industry with regulation.
"The species in the ocean are there for us," Anderson said. "Not to damage them, but to protect them. They are a resource for humans." He added the lobster industry is healthy and the addition of those on the waiting list would not damage the viability of the fishery.
Anderson has traveled the state to attend meetings on the program hosted by the Penobscot East Resource Center. "My suggestion in the meeting is always if you have one opportunity to change something, change it for the 302 people on the [statewide] waiting list that could add so much more revenue as opposed to restructuring the system," he said.
Student licenses are structured differently. Student licenses are issued to people 8 to 23 years old enrolled in school full time. Student license holders are eligible for a commercial license upon finishing school if they complete the apprentice program requirements before the age of 18, starting the first year with 300 traps, and increasing that number by 100 each subsequent season.
Anderson said that system is unfair to experienced fishermen on the waiting list.
"I've been lobstering a lot of years with a lot of different age demographics, and 18-year-old kids that go into lobstering don't start with much and they don't have any brains at all. It takes them 10 years to become a good fisherman," said Anderson.
Anderson is hoping a law will be passed to help those on the waiting list. "LePage is the governor, and he's into getting people working," he said.
A lot of people on the waiting list are disheartened and don't have the patience to mobilize, he said. "You have to go to the State House to picket and demonstrate, but these people on the list have to work," he said.
The state has selected the Gulf of Maine Research Institute to begin re-evaluating the licensing system in October. Gilbert of the DMR said the analysis is to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the system and to develop recommendations to correct deficiencies. Gilbert said the DMR is concerned with maintaining the profitability of the fishery and managing congestion.
David Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermens' Association, said the apprenticeship program was enacted to slow entry and professionalize the fishery so lobstermen would know what they were doing before entering the industry.
Cousens said the long waiting list was not the initial idea, but it's how the program has evolved.
"We're open to a fairer and better system, but we don't want more effort in fishing. We can't afford it," he said, adding there are too many lobstermen and traps on the water now.
Greed is a factor in getting support from permit holders, said Anderson. "You can make good friends and be close to people, but when it comes to the pocketbook, you'd have to be a brother or sister before you'd get help," he said.
You're two different people, he said, of whether you work in the front or the back of the boat. "As a sternman, you're expendable, you don't matter much," he said. "There are some relationships where there's a bond of friendship but not for the most part."
"Out of 100 million pounds landed last year, the greatest part of that came from 2,000 licenses out of 6,300 licenses. 1,300 are barely used, that leaves 4,000 guys, 2,000 are serious lobstermen. Out of 302 lobstermen waiting, what percentage of those would give much competition, especially with 300 tags?" he said.
He said the problem is not with lobster conservation as much as with the fishing industry. "When Maine let in the processing boats and the international seiners, stocks of fish were decimated. When fish stocks are hurt, it affects the shellfish industry. The ecology was messed up. That's why the cod disappeared and the blue fin tuna."
Anderson said stocks are now rebounding, strengthening the lobster industry.
He added that the species is not in danger; it's just territorial preservation and individual ability to fish. "I shouldn't be penalized for my ability to fish or for a guy buying half a million dollars worth of trucks, houses and cars, non-stop," he said.
Anderson favors allowing those who have completed the apprenticeship program to have the option of purchasing three different licenses, one for 330 tags, 550 tags and 880 tags, with the same rule that exists now, that they start with 300 traps.
Working as a sternman doesn't provide enough income for stability, especially in the winter and spring, said Anderson. Besides lobstering he does stonework, painting and fishes for other species, like tuna.
Anderson said restructuring the system would create more details, "which fisherman don't need.” “It's simple, they just want to go fish,” he said. “That's what they love to do."
Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at JLaaka@courierpublicationsllc.com or at 594-4401 ext. 118.