In its first meeting of the year, held Jan. 19 in Rockland, the Zone D Lobster Council devoted most of its discussion to the merits of a proposal under consideration by the Maine Legislature that would create a licensing procedure for recreational saltwater fishermen.

LD1331 is an act regarding saltwater recreational fishing that establishes a saltwater recreational fishing license, dedicates the license fees to the Marine Recreation Fishing Conservation and Management Fund, and gives the commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources authority to make expenditures from the fund for purposes such as fisheries management research and education and outreach.

The bill stems from the re-authorized Magnuson Stevens Act’s requirement that saltwater recreational fishermen must be licensed. The federal government will implement the requirement Jan. 1, 2011, if states have not done so. The bill, requested by the DMR, will fulfill the federal requirement and provide that license fees remain with the state and go into a dedicated fund that will help pay for enforcement and management for the recreational fishery sector.

LD 1331 would create a licensing system under which recreational saltwater fishermen would pay an annual fee to fish In Maine waters. The fee would be $15 for residents between the ages of 17 and 70. Currently federal registry fees are waived, although fishermen are required to register with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Beginning in January 2011, a federal fee of between $15 and $25 would be charged to residents of states that do not have a licensing system, DMR Deputy Commissioner David Etnier said. Maine, Hawaii and New Jersey are the only coastal states without licensing programs.

“If Maine fails to act this year, the money will go to the federal government instead of the state,” Etnier said. He said the DMR would use the licensing fees for a dedicated fund for fisheries research and management and to provide public access, enforcement and administration of the program. He estimated the potential income from saltwater anglers at between $200,000 and $300,000.

Zone D Lobster Advisory Council representative Gerry Cushman said a state-run program would give Maine’s commercial fishermen more of a voice.

“When the feds get a hold of this you will have no say,” Cushman said.

State Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, spoke in opposition to a state licensing system. Saying he would work with Maine’s congressional delegation to delay implementation of the federal registry, Trahan said such a program would only collect names and addresses of registered anglers.

“Why adopt a license,” he asked the council. “It creates a new bureaucracy within DMR for them to use to hire people.”

“I look at it as a revenue stream that we seriously need,” Etnier said.

Etnier said eight of 52 potential Maine Marine Patrol positions have remained unfilled due to budget constraints.

Trahan said the federal government could only charge for the cost of the registry and he plans to submit a bill that will prohibit any state agency from using its resources to enforce a federal registry in Maine waters.

He said Maine fishermen should wait a year to see what the costs will be.

Trahan was accompanied by lobbyist George Smith of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. Smith said 75 percent of anglers are opposed to a state saltwater license.

“You’re asking your friends in the Legislature to commit political suicide,” he said, referring to the Maine Lobstermen’s Association board’s support for LD 1331.

Smith also said a state license would harm people who fish off wharves and breakwaters.

“It sure is painful to see lobstermen on the other side,” Smith said. “Do you want 150,000 recreational fishermen giving you money and getting involved in your issues?”

“I don’t think something is for nothing anymore,” said MLA President David Cousens of South Thomaston. “I don’t think the feds are going to hand out money for enforcement.” He said lobstermen were paying the cost of the Marine Patrol’s presence on the water.

“I know no one likes a new license, but how much do we pay?” Cousens asked. One member of the council said individual lobstermen’s fees added up to more than $1,000 a year.

Council members also wondered how either a federal registry or a state licensing program would affect migratory species such as alewives.

“It’s either shoot yourself in the foot or get hung by the neck,” said council member Douglas McLennan of South Thomaston.

Council member Joe Bates of Rockland said he opposed a state license.

“Bear permits started at $5 for research and now it’s $25,” Bates said. “There’s no end to it. If there’s a revenue stream problem in my house I do without cable or that extra gallon of milk.”

In the end, six members of the council voted to support a state recreational saltwater fishing license, five voted against it and one member abstained.

On Jan. 20, the Marine Resources Committee met in Augusta to work on the measure to require saltwater licenses for recreational fishermen in Maine, but was unable to reach consensus.

Committee Chairwoman Rep. Leila Percy, D-Phippsburg, has suggested the $15 state license, and other members of the committee have called for a reduction of that fee to $5. Children under 17, residents 70 and older, and those fishing from charter boats would be exempt.

In other business, the council discussed fines for so-called wet storage, where lobstermen leave gear in the water after the hauling season is over. Currently the penalty for leaving lobster gear in the water all year is $250, and some lobstermen have said that is just another cost of doing business.

The council briefly discussed the failure of prosecutors to gain convictions in cases of trap and gear molestation. Some proponents of shorter license suspensions claim that juries feel the current three-year penalty is too long a period to keep a fisherman off the water, and that a shorter suspension might be more acceptable.

“Defense attorneys let it slip that it’s a mandatory suspension,” Etnier said. He said that even after such comments are stricken from trial records, juries are uncomfortable convicting those who would automatically be barred from their chosen profession.

Etnier said the DMR would probably recommend reducing the mandatory sentence to a one-year suspension with an option for up to three years.

While many alternative proposals are under consideration, Etnier said transferring the hearing system to a professional licensing board or hearings office, under which the commissioner could set the length of the penalty period, might be a solution. Etnier said the issue would be brought back to the zones after the Lobster Advisory Council reviewed it.

Laura Ludwig of the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation told the council about a new two-year project being conducted by her organization and DMR scientist Carl Wilson. Participants in the Ghost Gear program will spend two days in each of seven harbors, working with 10 lobstermen in each harbor to haul and document abandoned lobster gear.

The gear will be documented to inventory whether release panels are functioning, to see what kind of groundline is being used, and to check the amount and quality of bycatch before being returned to its owners. Unusable equipment will be recycled.

Ludwig said the hauling, which will start in Down East waters, will be conducted during the winter, when there is little activity in the lobster zones, and work in Zone D is scheduled for next year. She said there is a small stipend available to pay for fuel and interested boat operators will be screened to ensure that a wide variety of gear is surveyed.

Ludwig said fishermen interested in participating should contact her at 263-5300 or Wilson at 633-9538.

“In general, if people find gear they should call the wardens,” Ludwig said. It is illegal in Maine to use or salvage anyone else’s lobstering equipment without written permission from the DMR.

“Call Marine Patrol as soon as you see gear,” Etnier said.

The Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation’s floating rope buy-back program, which helps lobstermen defray the cost of replacing line that has been prohibited by the federal government, will continue in mid-April, Ludwig said.

The Herald Gazette Reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by e-mail at sauciello@villagesoup.com.

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