AUGUSTA — Lobstermen from Monhegan Island and the mainland port of Friendship sailed into the capital Tuesday, fishing for votes.
The two groups and their supporters met with the Marine Resources Committee concerning a proposal to restrict lobster fishing around Monhegan to residents and fishermen trained as apprentices by islanders.
The public hearing featured testimony from the fishermen, other interested parties, hired lobbyists, elected officials and the scientific community.
The legislation is being proposed by independent Sen. Jill Goldthwait of Bar Harbor and the Department of Marine Resources as a way to prevent overfishing around the 1-square-mile island of Monhegan. It comes in response to added fishing pressure put on the island by five fishermen from Friendship who are setting traps in Monhegan’s fertile offshore waters.
For nearly 100 years, Monhegan lobstermen have encountered little competition from others. The island’s winter fishing season and 600-trap limit, for all intents and purposes allowed islanders to keep the productive bottom to themselves. That all changed two years ago when the so-called “Friendship Five” received DMR approval to fish in island waters, provided they played by Monhegan’s rules. The same restrictions apply to the Friendship Five and the Monhegan lobstermen fishing off Monhegan, including the prohibition against fishing Maine waters beyond the Monhegan zone.
Island fishermen balked at the arrival of the Friendship group and pressed the DMR to restrict access. Besides retaining the six-month winter season and the trap limit, the proposed legislation also establishes a two-year apprenticeship program to be taught by Monhegan Island residents.
Island resident John Murdock said that based on his observations of the methods of the Friendship group so far this winter, “it’s my belief that they could benefit from the apprenticeship program.” Murdock said the influx of five Friendship boats nearly doubled the amount of pressure on the resource.
“Not a zone in the state could withstand that size increase,” Murdock said.
Sherman Stanley is the sixth generation of his family to lobster from Monhegan. Stanley is also the holder of the first Maine lobster license ever issued, having had it passed down from his ancestors. Stanley noted that unlike the rest of the state, Monhegan residents are restricted from lobstering beyond their island’s conservation zone.
“This is a family tradition and a way of life that has been preserved for generations,” Stanley told the committee. “The whole concept is on the line here for Monhegan. We’re in trouble and we need your help.”
Friendship resident Karl Pitcher is one of the five given permission to take lobster from Monhegan waters this winter. While Pitcher said he understood the island’s concerns, “things have changed in the fishing business and this is just another change that’s happened here.”
To emphasize his point, Pitcher produced a map detailing an 80-square-mile coastal area around Friendship that currently supports approximately 350 boats fishing 150,000 lobster traps. Contrast that with the 12 Monhegan boats that fish 7,200 traps in an exclusive zone of 30 square miles, he said.
“I believe that area will easily withstand more fishing,” Pitcher said. “We’re not trying to take their tradition away. We just want to fish there.”
Also testifying were fishermen with no interest in Monhegan’s waters but concerned about the Legislature setting a precedent. As a group they worried about other islands getting the notion to petition for an exclusive zone if Monhegan succeeded in winning legislative protection.
University of Maine biologist Robert Stenneck told the committee that Monhegan’s policy of closing its fishing season for half the year has created a “unique laboratory” to study lobster. He said the area seems to support a greater mix of large lobsters and described the waters as “a scientific opportunity” for study of the fishery.
Marine Resources Council member Lee Guptill said state law has already established separate lobster zones and apprenticeship programs. Gone is the day when anyone can walk into a DMR office and obtain a lobster license, he said.
Guptill said the dispute is bigger than Monhegan and Friendship. It is a clash between those who want to manage fisheries and those who want unlimited access.
“We have to decide whether we’re going to be farmers or cowboys,” Guptill observed.
The committee is expected to venture into Guptill’s hypothetical farm or trail when it continues its deliberations at a work session on Thursday. Whatever they eventually decide, the fate of the proposal will undoubtedly be decided by a vote of the Legislature later this session.