AUGUSTA – Hundreds of fishermen showed up at a state public hearing Monday at the Civic Center for a bill that would allow draggers to land lobsters in Maine.
Applause that occasionally followed comments opposed to the bill was a good indicator of how the majority of people in the room felt about the idea, but the clearest example of which side of the issue most of them were on was evident from two groups of colored sign-up sheets in the back of a second-story ballroom.
Before the hearing started, there was a line going out the door of lobstermen waiting to sign the pink sheets, which were for people opposed to LD 170. Two hours into the hearing, there were roughly a dozen signatures on the blue sheets, which listed supporters.
“We are not going to roll over and subsidize the groundfish industry to the tune of $20 million a year,” David Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, told the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee. “We do not want to see any reward for illegal behavior.”
A work session on the bill is expected to take place Wednesday, March 14, in Augusta.
The bill, proposed by Rep. Anne Haskell of Portland, would allow groundfishermen who drag up lobsters in their nets to land their catch in Maine. State law permits lobsters to be caught only with traps and prohibits fishermen who use dragger nets from bringing any lobsters ashore.
Many draggers now take their catch to Massachusetts, where it is legal for them to land lobsters. It is also legal in the Bay State to bring ashore big lobsters that exceed the maximum size allowed in Maine.
Representatives of the groundfish industry, including many connected with the Portland Fish Exchange, said allowing groundfishermen to bring lobsters ashore in Maine would help their ailing industry, which has been severely hampered by depleted catches and increased restrictions aimed at helping to restore groundfish stocks. Opponents say allowing the practice would threaten Maine’s lobster resource, which has been carefully protected for decades by conservation methods spearheaded by Maine lobstermen.
George Lapointe, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, told the committee the department opposes the bill for several reasons. It would put an added strain on the resource through more fishing effort and mortality and pits fisherman against fisherman, he said.
“It will cause further polarization in the industry,” he said.
For supporters of the bill, the bottom line is simple. Maine’s groundfish industry is moving out of state and stands a good chance of disappearing altogether. The lobsters are being caught anyway and taken to Massachusetts, and the industry no longer can afford to pass up the thousands of additional dollars each boat could keep each trip if they could bring those lobsters to Maine.
Ed Suslovic, a Portland city councilor and supporter of the bill, said the state has to do something to try to prevent Maine’s groundfishing fleet from vanishing.
“We are at a tipping point,” he said. “We can’t wait for another task force. The time for action is here.”
Many bill supporters disagreed with Cousens’ estimate that groundfishermen could make as much as $20 million by landing lobsters in Maine. Lobstermen caught about 66 million pounds of lobsters, worth about $272 million, in Maine in 2006. If, as suggested, groundfishermen are allowed to keep 6 percent of what the lobster industry brings ashore, Cousens had reasoned, that would result in another 4 million pounds, or about $20 million worth, of lobsters hauled out of the Gulf of Maine each year.
“It’s not going to be anywhere near that,” said Hank Soule, manager of the Portland Fish Exchange. “It will be well under 1 million pounds.”
But for bill opponents, the bottom line is equally clear. They said they sympathize with the groundfish industry and want to see it recover, but not at the expense of the lobster population in the Gulf of Maine. Letting draggers have a piece of the healthy lobster resource could threaten the careful balance of the fishery, which lobstermen have worked to establish for more than a century, bill opponents said.
“We strongly feel the dragging of the lobster would have a devastating impact on our industry,” said Belfast lobsterman Mike Dassatt.