AUGUSTA, Maine — In addition to a bill that during the next three years would increase the state’s annual lobster marketing budget to $3 million, the Legislature is considering a measure that would raise $1 million upfront for the same purpose.

On Wednesday, the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee held public hearings on both proposals in Augusta.

One bill would reorganize the state’s Maine Lobster Promotion Council, which critics say has suffered from inadequate funding and poor leadership. That bill, LD 486, would increase licensing surcharges in the state’s lobster industry so that by 2016, the new marketing entity would have $3 million to spend on national and international lobster promotion efforts. Currently, the Maine Lobster Promotion Council has an annual budget of around $350,000, which state and industry officials have said is inadequate.

License surcharges that lobstermen and dealers pay toward marketing efforts range from more than $30 to $250, depending on the kind of license. If LD 486 is approved, the surcharges would stay the same for 2013 but would increase in steps during the next several years. Surcharges for 2014 would range from more than $93 to $1,000, and by 2016 would run from $240 to $2,600, with processors facing the highest extra levies.

Because the surcharges would be phased in, one legislator has proposed a one-time appropriation of $1 million from the state’s General Fund to generically market Maine lobster. That bill, LD 182, would not appropriate any lobster marketing money from the General Fund after the 2013-14 fiscal year.

Committee work sessions on both bills are scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday, March 13, in Room 206 of the Cross Building in the state Capitol complex.

Independent Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos of Friendship, who sponsored LD 182, told the committee that the state has spent tens of millions of dollars touting its dairy and tourism industries. By comparison, he said, it has spent nothing on promoting its signature seafood. The $1 million, he added, would “jump-start” the state’s efforts to ramp up marketing of Maine lobster in the next few years.

Contacted Friday, Evangelos said lobstering in Maine is an industry in crisis and that the proposed expenditure is justified, despite the mounting funding challenges to the state budget. Austerity measures in Europe have not worked, he said, and they will not work in Maine.

“I’m hopeful [the committee] will see it my way,” Evangelos said. “It’s time to start investing.”

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, told the committee that the organization “strongly supports” both LD 182 and LD 486. She said that Maine lobstermen cumulatively earned $339 million for their efforts last year and that, including other businesses that buy and sell lobster, the industry generated $1 billion for the state’s economy in 2012.

“Profitability is at an all-time low despite record landings,” McCarron said, referring to the low prices that fishermen were paid last year. “We haven’t really had an effective or cohesive marketing strategy.

Others who spoke in favor of at least one of the bills included MLA President David Cousens, Sheila Dassatt of Down East Lobstermen’s Association, Nick Battista of the Island Institute and Vaughn Stinson, executive director of the Maine Tourism Association.

Others at the hearing did not support either bill and spoke against at least one of them.

Nelson King of Cutler said he didn’t like the fact that LD 486 would make lobstermen come up with 75 percent of the funds for the marketing program. He accused dealers of conspiring to pay lobstermen low prices and said that it would not be fair to have fishermen support a program that mainly helps dealers, processors and restaurants.
“It amounts to extortion,” King said.

Robert Bauer, general manager of Beal’s Lobster Pier in Southwest Harbor, criticized the Maine Department of Marine Resources — which supports LD 486 — for becoming too pro-fishermen and anti-dealer. He said he paid out $200,000 last year to one lobsterman who sold his catch to Beal’s, suggesting that fishermen still can make a decent living and don’t need the state’s financial help.

“There is a lot of smoke, but not a lot of fire,” Bauer said about the state of the industry.

Cousens, who fishes from Spruce Head, countered that boosting the state’s marketing efforts is key to the long-term viability of the industry.

He told the committee that he grossed the same amount of money in 2012 as he had in 1997. The big difference between those two years was his expenses, he added. He spent $7,700 on bait and fuel 16 years ago. Last year, bait and fuel cost him $44,000, he said.

Cousens said he has three sons who are fishermen and hopes their children someday also will have the option of fishing for a living.

“We want a future,” he told the committee. “We want future generations to make a living in this business.”

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....