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Lobster Fishery Managers Hold Series of Meetings with Fishermen
01/08/2013   Reported By: Jay Field
Lobstermen Listen to DMR Commissioner

By the numbers, 2012 looked like a pretty good year for lobstermen. They landed their largest catch ever, more than a hundred million pounds of lobster, worth over $330 million. But despite the huge haul, the industry has a basic economics problem. Warmer water in the Gulf of Maine is causing lobsters to shed earlier than normal, millions of pounds are flooding the market ahead of schedule and boat prices are hovering near record lows. Scientists expect this trend to continue, so state officials are meeting with lobstermen up and down the coast to talk about proposals to change how the fishery is managed.

Friendship, at the southern tip of Knox County, has one of those old community centers that look like it hasn't changed in decades. On Monday afternoon, lobstermen took seats on the floor of the main hall, a ramshackle basketball court hastily imposed over a linoleum floor. The Department of Marine Resources is holding 16 of these meetings over the next month, as it considers changes to the state's lobster licensing system and other strategies for boosting boat prices, while sustainably managing the fishery to ensure its future survival.

"All right, welcome. For those of you who don't know me, my name is Pat Keliher. I'm the commissioner at DMR. I'm gonna go through a little slide show here and we're gonna talk about long-term and short-term issues that are facing this industry."

Both sets of problems, Keliher tells the lobstermen, have to do with warmer water. Last summer, the early shed meant lobstermen hauled in five million pounds of product during the last two weeks of June and the first two weeks of July. Blockades of Canadian processing plants prevented Maine wholesalers from moving lobster off the suddenly saturated market. Boat prices fell, in some cases below $2 per pound.

"We had a 123 million pounds this year," Keliher said. "That's 18 million more pounds than last year. And that value was 3.7 million dollars less than last year. That ought to shock the hell out of all of you."

Since 2005, the amount of lobster landed in Maine has gone up by 53 million pounds, but the value of the catch has only increased by $13 million. But Keliher and other state officials aren't just worried about the short term economics. A recent report by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute finds that state's existing lobster licensing system would threaten efforts to protect the fishery, if the overall lobster stock started to decline due to rising water temperatures or an unanticipated, biological event.

"If this is the new normal then we need to adapt to it from a management perspective."

Keliher says one proposal, to protect the fishery's long term health, would be to change the state licensing system. Right now, many lobstermen in Maine have licenses to use more traps than they're actually setting in the water. If all of these so-called "latent traps" came online, the fishery would not be able to support them. The state is considering moving to a three-tiered licensing system. Lobstermen with no landings over the past four years would have their total traps cut to fifty. Those hauling less than 5,700 pounds would get 400 traps. Everyone above that level would get 800 traps. But the idea isn't setting well with some fishermen.

"Don't like this whole tier process," said Phillip Bramhall.

He's been lobstering off Friendship since high school, he told Keliher that the new system seemed designed to punish people.

"Saying you've got to catch 5,700 pounds to go to 800 tags," said Bramhall. "Might take a guy, might not be able to fish as hard might need the 800 traps to catch his 5,700 pounds."

On the shorter term price problem, marine resources officials are proposing limiting lobstermen to three days a week on the water, during peak summer periods where the market is saturated. Lobstermen in the audience seemed a bit more amenable to this idea. Richard Nelson said he worries that there's little Maine can do to prevent the kinds of changes that have decimated the lobster fishing off Cape Cod.

"They have serious troubles and that can happen much quicker than we'd like to think it can," said Nelson.
Photo by Jay Field.

[This story was edited to correct some factual errors on January 11, 2013 at 1:25 pm ET]


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