ELLSWORTH – The state lobster industry’s most powerful advocacy group used a forum Wednesday night to outline its biggest challenges to various political candidates from Knox, Hancock and Washington counties.
Representatives from the Maine Lobsterman’s Association said from the start that the event held at Ellsworth’s city hall would be educational and not a place for the candidates to stump or point fingers.
“You will notice that all of the nametags do not have your political party listed. They are nonpartisan,” said David Cousins, MLA’s president and a lobsterman from South Thomaston. “We think that the lobster and fishing industry should be that way too.”
Patrice McCarron, MLA’s executive director, delivered a presentation to about 40 candidates, who ranged from state senate hopefuls to challengers in a local sheriff’s race.
Chandler Woodcock, Republican candidate for governor and a state senator from Farmington, drove the two-plus hours to Ellsworth to attend Wednesday’s forum.
“This was worth every minute if for no other reason that it gets people thinking about this industry,” Woodcock said after the forum. “When I was a senator, we saw these issues a little bit, but generally speaking there were not a lot of roll call votes related to lobsters.”
Woodcock’s three Blaine House opponents all were at an event in Bangor on Wednesday hosted by the Maine Women’s Policy Center, where abortion rights and teen pregnancy were among the top issues debated.
Woodcock has taken some criticism for his absence at recent events featuring women’s issues but said he came to Ellsworth specifically for the MLA’s forum.
The lobster industry, which brings in about $1 billion each year to the state’s economy, has faced many challenges recently, McCarron said, including over-crowded waters, availability of bait and access to health care.
“We tend to be crisis- and problem-driven,” she said of the MLA, which is made up of about 1,200 members statewide who are represented by a board of directors. “We’re always looking at ways to reduce effort and make the industry run smoother.”
The most pressing issue, according to Cousins, is proposed federal regulations about the type of tow rope lobstermen use for their traps.
The rope currently in use, some say, threatens the endangered species of North Atlantic right whales, which have been known to get entangled. Cousins said no such case has ever existed off Maine waters and said the new regulations would be devastating.
“It would require all of us to change our ropes and we’re talking several thousands of dollars,” he said. “Most of us simply can’t do it. It would be economic suicide.”
John Carter, a Bar Harbor lobsterman, agreed with Cousins but said he wondered how many in the audience even were aware of the issue.
“I’m amazed at how little politicians in the state know about lobstering,” Carter said. “We’re talking about a whale issue that will put us out of business.”
Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, who sits on the Marine Resources Committee, admitted that most of his colleagues know little about the lobster industry, but he praised the MLA for hosting the forum and educating candidates.
Woodcock, too, called Wednesday’s forum informative but cautioned about making changes in the industry.
“Most of the time people who have emotional feelings about this industry don’t always think about the scientific aspects that are associated as well,” he said. “Science is more important than politics in this case.”