Analysis recommends tiered lobster license system

Report says industry is robust, considers unused tags and licenses
By Juliette Laaka | Dec 13, 2012
Courtesy of: Irene Burgo State receives independent analysis and suggestions regarding the lobstering licensing structure.

Four deficiencies in the state's lobster licensing structure could lead to tiered licensing, based on yields and tag history.

The determined shortcomings of the system are listed as latent effort, long waiting periods, inadequacy to respond to a biological emergency, and under-accounting of retiring tags, according to a report by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

The institute, selected in July to conduct the review, prepared an analysis for the Department of Marine Resources in early December.

The report will be presented to the legislature in January, said Meredith Mendelson, deputy commissioner for the Department of Marine Resources. The goal of the department is not to increase effort, she said, and added that the analysis is a rational assessment.

The report is solely a recommendation and the department will be analyzing data internally and crafting their own proposal with extensive input from the fishing community.

Mendelson said the tiered structure is similar to a proposal submitted by the state a few years ago.

"It's not a new proposal and has been discussed extensively within the department and with the Lobster Advisory Council," she said.

Mendelson said starting in January, 16 public forums will held to receive feedback.

Latent effort, described as the unused potential in a fishery, pertains to unused issued tags and licenses.

In 2011, 4,933 commercial license holders were recorded. Of those licenses issued, 1,107 recorded no landings.

The potential of all issued tags is high — the institute reports more than 1 million additional traps could be fished by current license-holders, translating to a 39 percent increase in fishing effort, according to the report.

Considering the unused licenses and tags, there is an avenue for those on the waiting list to join the fishery through a tiered licensing system without burdening existing lobstermen.

Currently, the licensing system offers four distinct commercial classes — one, two, and three, depending on the number of people allowed to work on a vessel. The fourth license is granted to full-time students under 23 years old, allowing 150 traps.

Students that complete the program before age 18 are not subject to the waiting list.

The institute's analysis found the average waiting time to get a commercial license for one that had completed the apprenticeship program is about six years. The report stated it could take more than 20 years for all 296 people on the waiting list to get a license. Ten to 15 licenses are retired a year, according to the institute.

The coast is divided into seven management zones. Zone C does not require those that have completed the apprenticeship program to be on a waiting list. They are able to enter the zone upon program competition with 300 traps.

People wanting to obtain their own license who are not students, face a labyrinth of steps toward eligibility.

The apprenticeship program, started in 1997, requires one to document — in a minimum of two years — 1,000 hours, 200 fishing days and pass a U.S. Coast Guard-approved fishing vessel training course.

The program was introduced to curb the number of people joining the fishery and sustain a healthy market.

Before one fisherman on the waiting list can buy a license, 4,000 tags for traps need to be retired. Through state law, lobstermen are allotted 800 tags each year. This means approximately five lobstermen would need to retire before one could get a commercial license.

To address latency, the institute recommends a tiered licensing system.

"Properly designed, a tiered system would allow holders of latent licenses to retain their license and provide a pathway for them to enter the fishery in a measured fashion that would not dramatically increase overall effort. Essentially, a tiered license system would create four levels of commercial licenses, with increasing amounts of allowed traps. Existing license holders would be divided into the four tiers based on landings and tag history, reflecting their current and recent activity. Access to lower tiers would be open to all who have completed the Apprentice Program. But access to upper tiers would be limited by the exit-to-entry ratios, which could be set to one-to-one," the report states.

The example of the tiers, from the report, are as follows:

No landings: eligible for 150 tags.

Up to 10,000 pounds: 400 tags.

Up to 30,000 pounds: 600 tags.

More than 30,000 pounds: 800 tags.

The institute said their findings, using 2011 landings, would cap effort but maximize participation. Through the tiered system, the number of tags would be reduced by 326,000 or 11 percent of total tags issued in 2011.

Some questions remain, according to the report. What if a fisherman has a poor year or is injured and unable to work, would that penalize them and move them to a lower tag number? How does the fact that some fishing grounds land more yields come into play? Some fishermen can catch 30,000 pounds with 600 traps, where others need 800.

Mendelson said an appeals process would be designed to address problems of injury and other concerns.

David Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, said the tiered licensing system is "a tool to deal with the problems we have."

He added that the individual fishing zones will have to set their own criteria relating to poundage and licensing for the idea to receive support from the fishing community.

Mendelson said the department recognizes different circumstances in each zone and would use a regional approach.

Other ways to cap effort is through tag transfers — intra-family or free market, and the selling of licenses. Cousens did not want to comment on those options as he described them as controversial.

The institute did not recommend free market transfers, citing the financial inability for young fishermen to afford purchasing a license, but did consider intra-family license transfers a viable option.

Canada, Massachusetts and New Hampshire allow the sale of licenses. In some parts of Canada, commercial licenses can fetch up to $800,000. New Hampshire sells licenses up to $15,000. In Massachusetts, licenses are worth about $10,000.

James Anderson, of Friendship, has been on the waiting list for six years and says he knows others that have waited for 15 years. He said he likes the ideas the institute advises, but described the 82 pages of content as a "ridiculous mess."

"I could have done it in two pages," he said.

Although Anderson agrees with the tiered licensing system recommendation, he hopes implementation is fair and cuts through red tape.

"We have a Republican Governor and a Democratic legislature, we'll see if they can get it together and get it done," he said.

The under-accounting of trap tags is identified as many lobstermen, especially nearing retirement, do not fish the total amount of gear allotted.

The report suggests the Department of Marine Resources count the total number of tags allowed under the license rather than the amount of tags purchased in the last year to expedite the exit-to entry-process. The institute found 27 percent more tags would be considered retired through this strategy.

The inability of the current system to respond to a biological disaster was explained as although the exit-to-entry strategies were developed along with strict conservation regulations to protect the fishery, the fishing capacity has increased with larger vessels and more traps issued, and therefore, not effectively controlling effort.

"If the resource were to decline, the current system would not be able to respond fast enough to prevent overfishing, which could be catastrophic to Maine’s lobster industry and coastal communities," the report states.

The institute advises preparation for a possible dramatic loss of lobsters, through an environmental change or disease with a fishery management plan.

The institute found that the industry is currently healthy, with growing landings, peaking at 105 million pounds in 2011.

The report can be found online through the Department of Marine Resources website.

Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at



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