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Lobster By-catch Bill Divides Maine's Fishing Industry
04/09/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

Proposed legislation that would allow Maine's groundfishermen to sell lobsters that they unintentionally catch in their trawling nets has led to some fierce debate among different sections of the state's fishing community. On one side are the fishermen, who have traditionally relied on harvesting flounder, pollock, haddock and other types of groundfish. With this fishery facing huge cuts, the ability to sell lobster bycatch to supplement the regular catch is regarded by them as a crucial source of additional revenue. But those who lobster for a living are opposed to the proposal. Tom Porter reports.

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Jim Odlin owns and operates three groundfishing vessels out of Portland. He says there's a lot at stake.

The state stands to lose a whole industry," says Odlin, who was at the State House Monday to testify at a public hearing in favor of LD 1097 - an Act to Allow the Sale of Incidentally Caught Lobsters. This would allow groundfishermen who pick up lobster by-catch in some offshore federal waters, to sell it at the Portland fish market.

Maine is the only New England fishing state that prohibits the practice. Massachusetts, for example, allows fishermen to land up to 500 lobsters per 5-day fishing trip. As a result, Odlin says his boats have been forced to unload in Massachusetts, rather than in Portland, Maine, where they're based. And he says that is costing Maine jobs.

"In the past five years, we've unloaded almost exclusively in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and have landed approximately 20 million pounds of fish in Gloucester that could have, and should have, been landed in the state of Maine," Odlin testified.

"I realize it's an emotional issue, but it's also critical for the survival of the infrastructure for Maine's groundfishing industry," says Democratic state Sen. Anne Haskell, of Portland, who is sponsoring the proposal.

The amount of lobster groundfishermen are permitted to land under the terms of the bill would be determined by the Department of Marine Resources, and by the health of the lobster population.

Haskell proposed a similar measure in 2007, which was vigorously opposed by the lobster industry. She says this latest bill is more limited in scope, and does not represent a significant increase in the amount of lobster being caught.

"These lobsters are already being caught. They're just being landed outside of the state. They're being landed in other places and consequently the fish are being landed there as well," Haskell said.

Bringing these lobsters to Portland, she says, would provide a lifeline to support businesses which are hanging on by a thread.

On the other side of the debate are the state's lobstermen, who remain as opposed to the new proposal as they were to the one six years ago.

"I am deeply saddened to be here before you on this bill today, not only because this proposal seeks to undo one of the pillars of lobster conservation, but because it's an issue that's divisive for Maine's fishing industry," said David Cousens. Cousens fishes for lobster out of Thomaston. He's also president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association.

"In 2012, a record 126 million pounds of lobster was landed in Maine, valued at nearly $340 million, contributing an estimated $1 billion to Maine's economy," Cousens told lawmakers. "Lobster is Maine's most valuable fishery, and is the economic engine for our coastal communities."

Cousens says Maine's lobster industry has a long history of stewardship and is one of the few sustainably-managed fisheries in the world. Lobstermen, he says, do not go to the trouble of carefully returning large females to the ocean so they can be dragged up by trawl nets.

Julie Eaton from Stonington agrees. She's a commercial lobsterman who came down to Augusta to testify in opposition to LD 1097. "I believe that it will not save the groundfish industry, and could be extremely detrimental to a thriving industry, which is of course the Maine lobster industry," Eaton said. "Please, please don't allow this to happen to us."

Supporters of the measure have warnings of their own. Without this legislation, they say what's left of the groundfishing industry in Portland could be lost for good when new stringent catch limits are imposed next month.


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