AUGUSTA, Maine — Despite highly visible defeats for Maine groundfishermen who have tried to overturn a state law that prohibits them from possessing lobsters, there may be hope yet for easing the restriction.

For the third time in six years — and the second time in the past two months — a bill that would legalize the practice is being considered in the Legislature.

Two earlier legislative proposals that would have allowed Maine groundfish boats to keep their incidental lobster bycatch and to land it in Maine have died in committee. In March 2007 and again this past April, the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee voted unanimously that each proposal ought not to pass.

Members of Maine’s lobster trap fishery strongly opposed both prior proposals, which contributed each bill’s defeat. Each time, lobstermen argued that allowing groundfishermen to keep the lobsters they drag up would place undue pressure on the resource and have an adverse effect on the lobster industry’s bottom line.

This time around, however, the idea has received partial support in the legislative committee and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association — the largest commercial fishing advocacy organization in Maine — has decided to remain silent.

With the latest bill, LD 1549, Maine’s groundfish industry essentially is asking to be allowed to take their lobster bycatch to Massachusetts, though the state is not mentioned specifically in the proposal. Maine groundfish boats routinely offload their catch in Massachusetts, where lobster bycatch is legal, but under Maine law no groundfish vessel with a licensed crew member from Maine is allowed to have lobster on board, regardless of where the boat plans to offload its catch.

Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland is the legislator who, at the urging of groundfishing-dependent businesses in her district, introduced all three bills. Groundfishermen say that being able to keep lobsters they catch incidentally while targeting groundfish species would help provide a welcome boost to the state’s dwindling groundfish fleet and the businesses they support.

Haskell said Thursday that the Marine Resources Committee voted 7-6 on the bill on May 22. With the split vote, she said, the bill is expected to go to the full Legislature — something that didn’t happen with either of her prior proposals.

Marty Odlin, whose family owns and operates three groundfishing boats out of Portland, said last week that their firm supports LD 1549. He said Maine groundfish boats have been taking lobster bycatch to Massachusetts for the past 30 years, during which time annual landings by Maine’s lobster trap fishery have increased from around 22 million pounds to more than 126 million pounds.

“It obviously doesn’t hurt the lobster population,” Odlin said of groundfish boats catching incidental lobsters. “There are so many lobsters in the Gulf of Maine, it’s impossible to avoid them.”

Patrice McCarron, executive director of Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said Thursday that unlike the prior bills, MLA has not taken an official position on and did not offer any testimony on LD 1549. She declined to go into specifics about the latest proposal or about MLA’s perspective on it, but she did say the group’s general position about how lobsters should be harvested remains the same. Any method other than using traps on the sea floor, she said, should not be permitted.

“We are philosophically opposed to dragging for lobsters,” McCarron said.

According to Haskell, LD 1549 would eliminate the threat of hefty fines for violating current Maine law by essentially legalizing the industry’s current practice of landing their catch in Massachusetts. Under the current law, if any groundfish boat, whether it is based in Maine or not, is stopped by Maine Marine Patrol and has both a crew member with a Maine fishing license and dragged lobster on board, the captain of the boat could face a $50,000 fine, she said.

“It’s not a cost-of-business dollar amount,” Haskell said. “That’s a very severe penalty.”

According to officials with Maine Department of Marine Resources, which supports LD 1549, Maine Marine Patrol hasn’t gone offshore to enforce the state’s lobster bycatch ban for the past five years. There was a recent case of a Maine groundfish vessel being cited for having lobster bycatch on board, but that was a result of state and federal officials stopping the vessel for another reason, the officials said. Details about the enforcement action could not be tracked down for this story.

Haskell pointed out that the vast majority of groundfishing occurs in federal waters and that both federal law and Massachusetts law allow groundfish boats to keep lobster that get hauled up in their nets. As long as the practice is allowed elsewhere, she said, there will be incentive for Maine groundfishermen to establish residency out of Maine so they can get fishing licenses in other states.

That would mean businesses, income taxes and discretionary spending all moving out of state, Haskell said. The economic effect of driving the groundfish industry out of Maine, she said, would be significant.

“[But] they don’t have an option,” Haskell said. “They cannot risk a $50,000 fine.”

DMR, at the encouragement of Gov. Paul LePage, has supported recent legislative proposals to allow lobster bycatch to be landed in Maine. The state agency was opposed to the idea six years ago, but at hearings this spring it has urged the Marine Resources Committee to support changing the law.

“The Department supports this bill as a measure of protection for Maine’s groundfish fleet, as well as due to the pragmatic concerns of enforcing state law in federal waters,” Deputy DMR Commissioner Meredith Mendelson told the committee on May 22. “[DMR] remains committed to the preservation of our groundfishery and believes that this bill is an appropriate and narrowly tailored mechanism to protect the remaining vessels in Maine’s groundfish fleet.”

Despite DMR’s support and MLA’s silence, there still is opposition to the proposal beyond the six members of the Marine Resources Committee who voted against it.

Sheila Dassatt of Downeast Lobstermen’s Association, which has around 300 members, said Sunday that their group has not changed its position since the idea was debated six years ago. She said DELA opposes LD 1549 because dragging harms the ocean bottom, and that DELA has made its opposition known to legislators.

Dassatt cited the groundfish industry, which has seen its landings plummet over the past two decades, as an example of how quickly a resource can be depleted and then over the next decades struggle to recover.

“Our association is adamantly opposed to dragging, period,” Dassatt said.

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....