top of page
  • MLCA

Entering and exiting the lobster fishery -- Canadian and U.S. perspectives

First published in the MLA Newsletter, April, 2012

How do you get in and how do you get out of lobster fishing? That was the lead question explored at the 2012 Canadian/U.S. Lobstermen’s Town Meeting, held in Portland in late March. Lobstermen from Canada and New England shared with the audience specific methods in their province or state for entering and leaving lobster fishing. The first difference to recognize is that in Canada, a lobster license is considered property. One can buy or sell that license as one would sell a house lot. The second characteristic that distinguishes lobster licenses in Canada from those in the United States is the fact that all lobstermen in Canada get their license from the federal government through the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). No matter where one lobsters there are no provincial lobster licenses – all are federally issued. DFO established regions along the coast called Lobster Fishing Areas (LFAs). Lobstermen are licensed by area. Each area opens and closes on a rolling schedule throughout the year, ensuring a steady supply of lobsters to dealers and processors. Laurence Cook of Grand Manan Island (LFA 38) explained that, like Maine, lobster licenses once were issued only to owner/operators. Licenses could only go to full-time lobstermen who were previously part-time lobstermen fishing for at least six months annually over a two-year period, similar to Maine’s Apprentice Program. The cost of the license, because it is property, can be financed by a bank. But, because the cost of a license and boat is so high, and the price paid for lobsters is so low, it is difficult for young people to get the financing necessary to get into the fishery. “A young person can’t get the financing to buy a boat and a license from the bank because he’ll be a half million in debt before he even starts fishing,” Cook said. As a consequence, there is no market for the boats that older fishermen want to sell as they retire from the fishery because so few newcomers can afford both a license and a boat. In February a Grand Manan license was sold to a company operating in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. DFO officials, quoted in an article in The Quoddy Tides, stated that selling a lobster license outside of a LFA has long been allowed. Cook, however, said that DFO had enforced an owner-operator requirement for fifty years before this sudden shift. Large companies, argued Cook, can afford the high price of a license without needing bank financing. Thus it’s likely that lobstermen wanting to retire will sell their license to a corporation rather than to an inexperienced fisherman who the banks won’t take a chance on. “It’s difficult for new entrants to get in. It’s not the law but the economics that prevents them,” Cook said. Cook fears that if more corporations buy licenses, revenues that have long been invested locally will no longer stay in the community. In January DFO released a review paper on “modernization” in the Maritime provinces fishing industry and asked fishing organizations to comment on the document by March. Lobstermen noted that the owner-operator and fleet separation policies that have been in place for many years were conspicuously absent from the document. Fishing organizations in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have expressed concern that this indicates that DFO will put in place a system through which licenses can be purchased by processing companies and then leased back to fishermen. Kenny Drake, president of the Eastern King’s County Fishermen’s Association on Prince Edward Island, pointed out that lobstering in his area was complicated by the fact that three LFAs encompass P.E.I. But entry and exit strategies there are much the same as elsewhere in the Maritime provinces. “It’s one person in, one person out and no new licenses are issued,” he explained. A lobsterman must have two years experience before he can buy a license and faces the same difficulties of financing as any other Canadian lobsterman. In P.E.I., however, the provincial government came up with a plan in January, 2009, to assist new lobstermen. Called the Future Fishers Program, it provides rebates to lobstermen on the loans they take out from banks to get their license. The rebate is up to 2 percent on loans up to $150,000. In addition, a new lobsterman may take out a loan through the program of up to $10,000 over three years. In return, the lobsterman must take several mandatory classes in topics such as safety and first aid and get involved in the island’s Lobster Advisory Board and other industry groups. “The idea is that are not stepping in green,” Drake said. “They are stepping in knowing about the industry, not just the fishing part.” Thus far 60 fishermen have signed up for the program. Bill Adler, president of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, spoke about the entry system in his state. In Massachusetts the lobster license is issued annually to an individual, not to a boat. That license can be transferred. “The Division of Marine Fisheries limited the number of licenses to 1,800 back in the 1980’s,” Adler explained. “The biologists thought that the number of lobstermen should be a lot lower, down around 1,300.” The division then closed the fishery to any new licenses as it created a revised management plan for Massachusetts lobster. A new license transfer system was instituted in 1993 which allowed more people to access licenses. The new transfer procedures permitted licenses to transfer to a boat’s employees, persons on an established waiting list as well as to immediate family members. Only those licenses actively fished for four out of the previous five years can be transferred. A new lobsterman must show one year of experience lobstering or two years experience in commercial fishing. All new license holders have to be owner-operators of their boat. The state still has a moratorium on issuing any new lobster licenses. “Overall the price has remained reasonable,” Adler said. Elliott Thomas, a Yarmouth, Maine lobsterman and MLA board member, gave a summary of the Maine lobster zone system. Maine does not allow the transfer of lobster licenses in any circumstance. The lobster zone system, instituted in 1998, required that only lobstermen who held a license in the previous year could obtain a license in the next. An Apprenticeship Program was established to provide a means of entry for those who did not qualify. The apprentice must have one to three sponsors and document 200 fishing days with a minimum of 1000 hours during a two-year period. That document in turn has to be signed by the apprentice’s sponsor and by the Department of Marine Resources marine patrol officer in his region. During the apprenticeship period, the apprentice can’t fish on his own or purchase his own trap tags. Upon completion, an apprentice can obtain a license in an open zone (currency Zone C) and is placed on a waiting list subject to the exit/entry ratio in closed zones. A separate licensing system was set up for students, classified as young people between the ages of 8 and 23. A student can fish on his own and can get his own lobster tags for his traps. If he has completed the requirements of the Apprentice Program, when he turns 18, he automatically qualifies to get a lobster license. A new lobsterman cannot start with more than 300 traps in his first year. Each additional year he can add one hundred more traps until he reaches the trap cap of 800 (or the specified zone limit). A lobsterman must declare his zone when he fills out his application for a license, and must have apprenticed in that zone to obtain a license. Six of Maine’s seven lobster zones have a waiting list for new entrants. At first that list was based on an entry/exit ratio of licenses exiting the zone, however, the ratio was changed recently from the number of licenses exiting to the number of trap tags exiting that zone. This change was made because the number of traps tags was increasing even though the number of licenses was decreasing. An individual wanting to fish in Zones B, D, F, or G, for example, must wait until 4,000 tags are retired in the previous year before being able to get a license. In Zone E, that number is 3,000 tags and in Zone A 2,400 tags. Zone C remains the last open-entry zone. As a result, the time a person who has successfully completed the apprentice program can expect to spend on the waiting list is now measured in years for some zones.


bottom of page