Members of the Zone C Lobster Council met Jan. 26 for the first time since August. The seven zone councils act in an advisory capacity to the Department of Marine Resources and are required to meet four times a year.

Council members reviewed an extensive agenda that included a presentation on a project to retrieve and analyze so-called ghost gear, and an overview of various law changes under discussion in the Legislature.

Some council members said the new neutral buoyant, or sinking, line now required by federal law has already begun to degrade and is causing more traps to be lost on the bottom. Laura Ludwig of the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation told the council that the ghost gear study, to be conducted over the next two years in all the zones, could help determine the cause of the losses.

Dierdre Gilbert, assistant to DMR Commissioner George Lapointe, gave the legislative report. Of the four bills Gilbert discussed, the one that drew the most response at the meeting was LD 1560, which would allow the individual zones to increase the number of traps that could be part of a single trawl. Currently trawls in some Maine waters are limited to three traps.

“It would give the zone councils a lot of flexibility within their lines,” Marine Patrol Lt. Alan Talbot said of the bill.

The Zone C council voted unanimously to support the bill.

There was debate over LD 1604, a bill that would allow the DMR commissioner to close an area if activities there constituted a threat to public safety. Now only gear conflict or the possibility of imminent depletion of a marine organism would justify such a closure.

“This summer was a rough summer in regard to gear conflict,” Gilbert said, referring to violence that erupted on Matinicus Island and in some mainland harbors.

“I want you people to think about this,” said council member Vance Bunker, a Matinicus lobsterman who is awaiting trial for two counts of elevated aggravated assault and single counts of criminal threatening and reckless conduct resulting from a shooting incident on July 20, 2009. Bunker represents Matinicus and Criehaven on the Zone C council.

“I think what the state should do when it gets to the point of conflict is close it down until people smarten up,” Bunker said. “It isn’t always a few people.”

Bunker said there are always people willing to add fuel to the fires of conflict, but he isn’t sure the solution is to give more power to the commissioner.

Talbot said he only recalled two times when an area had been closed due to gear conflicts.

The council was divided on the proposed bill, with five members voting to support LD 1604, two against and two abstaining.

The Lobster Advisory Council has been discussing a new approach to marketing, and Zone C council members joined other councils in questioning a proposal to increase the tariff on trap tags in order to fund a more extensive marketing program.

“We want to make sure there is a benefit to all involved,” said council Secretary Robert Ray of Stonington. He and others on the council said they felt that dealers need to share the monetary burden for an effort from which they are most likely to benefit.

According to DMR Resource Management Coordinator Sara Cotnoir, roughly 6,300 licensed lobstermen purchased trap tags this year. The 2010 cost of a license ranges between $65 and $501 depending on the type of license issued, she said. Each licensee can have up to 800 trap tags, at a cost of 40 cents each.

Wholesale dealers licensed to sell lobsters pay $443 for a license and also pay a $250 Lobster Promotion Council surcharge. Cotnoir said some dealers might still file applications, but 360 lobster dealer licenses were purchased in 2009.

As the discussion turned to a DMR proposal to change the way trap molestation cases are handled, council Chairman Hilton Turner said the nature of conflict among lobstermen has changed dramatically in recent years.

“People knew their place and they don’t anymore,” Turner said. He said there are too few Maine Marine Patrol officers for the number of fishermen on the water. The Marine Patrol has 52 authorized positions, but eight of these are vacant and cannot be filled due to state budget issues. In addition, three ranking officers do not serve as active enforcers.

“A fellow who cuts off [another fisherman’s traps] in broad daylight is pretty stupid,” Turner said.

“That fellow who cut traps in broad daylight got caught and he got away with it,” said Ray, referring to two recent cases that were lost even though the DMR believed they were solid cases.

The council discussed shorter mandatory sentences, seizure of property and equipment, or a change that would transfer the hearing system to a professional licensing board or hearings office, under which the commissioner could set the length of the penalty period. The council also discussed other possible remedies but drew no conclusions. The Lobster Advisory Council is expected to continue the discussion at its meeting on Thursday, Jan. 28.

The date and location of the next meeting of the Zone C Lobster Council was not set, but it was agreed that a future meeting, possibly in May, would be held on North Haven.

For more information, visit the DMR Web site at maine.gov/dmr.