Lobstermen in Maine ready for debate over license wait list

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — There are few things in Maine as coveted as a lobster fishing license, and a proposal to bring dozens of people off the state’s license waiting list has fishermen in the state ready for a debate.

More than 200 people are waiting in the wings for a lobstering license, which has long been a ticket to the middle class for working coastal Mainers. But a proposal before a state legislative committee would bring new people into the fishery who have been waiting for 10 or more years.

That would instantly add more than 50 new fishermen to the industry during an era of high catches and strong prices, but also concern about warming oceans and new fishing restrictions designed to protect whales.

The proposal is up for a hearing on Tuesday before the Committee on Marine Resources. The bill’s presenter, Democratic Rep. Joyce McCreight of Harpswell, said the proposal is designed to help fishermen who have been the victim of a waiting list system that doesn’t often budge. But she acknowledged that there is opposition to the idea, and she’s expecting a lively hearing.

“The idea was if somebody’s been on the list that long, it would be nice to offer them an alternative,” McCreight said. “The response has been some very much in favor and some very much opposed.”

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association has yet to take a formal position on the proposal, and is meeting on the issue on Monday evening, said the group’s president, Kristan Porter a Cutler lobsterman. He declined to take a personal stance on the issue until after the meeting.

Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher is also declining to comment on the proposal until Tuesday’s hearing, a spokesman said.

Another member of the marine resources committee, Democratic Rep. Genevieve McDonald, said concern over possible changes in lobster fishing rules make it difficult to let new fishermen onto the water. McDonald, a lobsterwoman from Stonington, said a particular problem is that the industry is faced with potential management changes to reduce interactions with the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

“Until we know the outcome of these discussions it is very difficult to pass legislation that would increase lobster fishing effort,” McDonald said.

The proposal is among a suite of changes proposed to the lobster licensing system in Maine. Another, proposed by McDonald, would exempt children age 12 and under from being counted as crew members on a captain’s license. That would allow them to participate aboard the boat, which some in the fishery say has long been standard practice anyway.

Maine fishermen are by far the biggest producers of lobster in the U.S., and the state in the midst of a multi-year boom in lobster catch. Fishermen have caught more than 100 million pounds of the crustaceans for the last seven years after never previously reaching that mark in the state’s history.

The 2017 total of slightly less than 111 million pounds was the lowest since 2011, but it was still more than twice the 2003 haul. The state is expected to release data about 2018 later this winter.

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