ELLSWORTH, Maine — Fishermen are used to having to wait until they catch something, but there are many in Maine who don’t think it is right that they should have to wait a decade or more to catch lobster.
The state Department of Marine Resources agrees that the waiting list for lobster licenses in most fishing zones along the coast is too long and, if possible, something should be done to reduce the time it takes to get a license.
At a meeting last week in Ellsworth — one of several DMR has held over the past month along the coast — Commissioner Patrick Keliher told a group of nearly 60 people that he wants to make waits predictable, so that applicants will know roughly how long it will be before they get their license. But, he added, the department wants to avoid increasing the number of active lobster traps in the fishery, which he said already is being “fully exploited” by licensed fishermen.
“What do people on the waiting list want?” Keliher asked the group at Ellsworth High School, most of whom were fishermen with and waiting for lobster licenses. “They want predictability.”
The Maine coast is divided into seven lobster fishing zones — A through G — each with its own council that has limited authority on how that zone is managed. More than a decade ago, in order to reduce the amount of pressure in the fishery, limited entry rules were implemented in each zone with the exception of Zone C, which encompasses state waters on the western side of North Haven to Newbury Neck in Surry.
In every zone but C, which has no waiting list, a certain number of lobstermen have to officially retire before the state allows a new fisherman into that zone. The exit-to-entry ratio is between three-to-one and five-to-one, depending on the zone and whether they base the ratio on the number of licenses or trap tags that are retired. No lobsterman in Maine is allowed to use more than 800 traps at a time.
Nearly 290 lobster license applicants are waiting for their names to be called. According to DMR records, those waiting the longest are 10 people who would fish around Mount Desert Island or in western Penobscot and Muscongus bays. They have been waiting since 2005 for their licenses and have no way of knowing when they might get theirs.
Few people have been waiting longer than St. George resident Vernon Lewis, whose name was added to the Zone D wait list in November 2005. Lewis said Sunday he hasn’t kept track of his position on the list in recent years (he currently is second from the top) but that he still is interested in getting a lobster license.
For the past 10 years, Lewis has worked as boat captain in the Gulf of Mexico energy industry, operating supply and dive boats. He said he has maintained his residency in Maine and would be content to stay in Maine year-round if he could get his lobster license.
He had one for 25 years, he added, but let it lapse in the early 2000s, when he sold his fishing boat and was going through a divorce. He was surprised to find out he could not automatically get another one, he said, and has not been impressed with the process he’s faced to get it back.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” Lewis said. “It might be another five years before I get one.”
Lewis pointed out that when he got out of the fishery, annual landings in Maine were about half of what they have been in each of the past three years, when they have hovered between 123 million pounds and 128 million pounds. Catch volumes have soared but the average price lobstermen earned for their catch in 2014 was $3.69 per pound, roughly the same as it was between 1999 and 2003, and the number of fishermen in the fishery is being reduced.
“They should let more guys in to share the wealth,” Lewis said. “It’s not for a lack of lobsters. The landings keep going up year after year.”
To address the issue, state officials a few years ago considered using a tiered licensing system that would have allowed willing fishermen to be limited to fewer than 800 traps. That idea was scrapped, however, after DMR concluded it would create logistical headaches in the industry and, though it might allow more fishermen into the fishery, it also likely would result in a larger number of traps in the water.
State officials don’t have precise figures but they know not every licensed lobstermen actively fishes every year and not every fisherman who buys the maximum of 800 trap tags uses all of them — an issue referred to as ‘latency.’ Any policy change that could inadvertently result in a significant number of additional traps going in the water, as when the state decided in the late 1990s to implement the 800-trap limit for each fishermen, is something DMR has indicated it wants to avoid repeating.
Annual lobster landings in Maine have increased sharply over the past 25 years, from 23 million pounds in 1989 to 123 million pounds last year, but fishery and industry officials believe at least a minor downturn is inevitable. Officials hope such a decrease might be delayed and its effects minimized if, in the meantime, they can prevent an increase in the number of the traps in the water.
Keliher told the group in Ellsworth that he also looked into the possibility of allowing licenses or trap tags to be transferred directly between fishermen, but decided that, too, could result in tagged but unused traps becoming active in the fishery.
One option he still supports, he said, is raising the maximum age for a student lobster license from 18 to 23, so budding fishermen could attend college. If the program’s maximum age was raised, he added, it would result in many people on the waiting list getting their licenses more quickly, which would shorten wait periods for others on the list not eligible for the student license program.
He said that the department plans to submit a bill to the Legislature in the coming weeks but that he expects it will be thoroughly vetted and amended by the Marine Resources committee, so he declined to predict what measures might be adopted to reduce license waiting periods.
In other business, DMR officials told fishermen in Ellsworth that they now will allow each fisherman to transfer trap tags between his or her traps — as long as Marine Patrol doesn’t find any evidence of “chicanery” involved, Keliher said, referring to deliberate efforts to skirt around the state’s 800 trap limit. Rene Cloutier, deputy chief of Marine Patrol, said the ban on transferring tags among one fisherman’s traps had been recommended by the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission but that, unlike in other states, Marine Patrol conducts equipment checks frequently enough that Maine lobstermen are unlikely to run the risk of setting a trap that does not have a valid tag on it.