AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee is on the verge of establishing a lobster conservation zone around Monhegan Island exclusively managed by islanders.
At a committee work session Thursday, eight of the panel’s 13 members gave tentative approval to a bill creating the zone. The committee is expected to finalize details of the zone next week before formally voting whether to recommend it to the full Legislature for passage.
The zone would be keyhole-shaped, two miles wide around two-thirds of the island and three miles wide on the other third.
If approved, the bill will force the five lobstermen from the mainland port of Friendship currently fishing in Monhegan waters to pull their traps and set them somewhere else. The so-called “Friendship Five” began fishing the Monhegan bottom on Dec. 1.
“I feel the same about this as I always have,” disgruntled Friendship lobsterman Karl Pitcher said of the committee’s apparent leanings. “We have a license to fish anywhere in Maine waters, the Department of Marine Resources allowed us in, gave us the right to fish there. If this bill ever passes, they will be throwing our rights away.”
The bill calls for the creation of a conservation zone around the island that can be fished only for 180 days each year. The zone would be closed between the end of June and the beginning of December. It puts a cap on the number of fishermen at the same 14 who set traps in the area prior to the DMR opening it up to the Friendship Five in 1996. All of those fishermen were from Monhegan.
In addition, anyone wanting to fish the zone first must serve as an apprentice for two years, a provision that became state law two years ago. The legislation prohibits anyone fishing Monhegan waters during the 180-day season from setting traps in all other waters governed by state law. The proposal also calls for the creation of a panel to monitor the island’s lobster season with the goal of using Monhegan as a base line for lobster management. The fact Monhegan has only fished lobster for six months a year may make it an ideal living laboratory for scientific study, some scientists have said.
“I was impressed by the thoroughness of the committee,” Monhegan lobsterman Doug Boynton said following the work session. “How they looked at it, how they basically beat it to death from every viewpoint, left it clear to us that they are going to do some things, not all of which we can live with.”
Although the work session was fractious at times, committee co-chair and bill co-sponsor Sen. Jill Goldthwait, I-Bar Harbor, succeeded in building a consensus. Although she acknowledged afterwards that individuals sometimes change their minds, Goldthwait expressed confidence the majority would hold.
Along with stressing the danger faced by the island community of 80 year-round residents being brought by outside pressure from Friendship, Goldthwait when presenting the bill to the committee also empathized with the scientific attraction of creating a “living laboratory” conservation zone.
“It may be our only opportunity. There is probably no other place on the Maine coast where anyone can draw these conclusions.”
While all committee members have a coastal constituency, admittedly caught between a rock and a hard place was Rep. Wendy Peih, D-Bremen. As the representative of Friendship, Peih was a reluctant backer of the proposal. Speaking for the Friendship Five, Peih observed, “I don’t feel there are any bad guys here. Friendship broke no laws when they joined in. I don’t blame them for thinking `We’re getting ripped off again.’ ”
Maine Marine Patrol Chief Officer Joseph Fessenden told the committee that the Friendship move on Monhegan was in response to increased fishing pressure in their home waters. As more lobstermen with bigger boats moved into their traditional grounds, the Friendship fishermen started looking toward Monhegan.
“We had a Monhegan rule forever. They had traditional waters, each community in the state has traditional waters. They are not lines set in law, it was the law of the sea,” Fessenden said. “Without them Monhegan would fish Friendship, Friendship would fish Monhegan.”
Make no mistake, Fessenden said, “this area was raided” by the Friendship group. And, because Monhegan traditionally protected its fishing grounds by cutting the gear of interlopers “with a knife,” the marine patrol feared an escalation of violence. Fessenden said the DMR viewed the conservation zone as a way to prevent violence and protect traditions.
“We can’t let this fishery become industrialized,” he said.