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Guest Column: 2017 was a year of change

While landings in most parts of the state are down compared to last year’s record-setting catch, lobster continues to be Maine’s most valuable fishery. In fact, in 2016 it was the most valuable fishery in the U.S. Maine’s lobster fishery remains a success story due to the close collaboration the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) and the industry have and must maintain as we move forward in the face of a changing environment within the Gulf of Maine.

Before I go on, it is important to note that just because landings will be down in 2017 it does not mean the sky is falling. That said, we can’t ignore the decline in the Lobster Settlement Survey or landings. In my role as a Commissioner at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) I have watched as both the industry and state managers struggled to come to agreement on what to do as the Southern New England lobster stocks declined and in some areas collapsed. It is because of the Southern New England lobster situation that I moved forward the development of an addendum to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for lobster to see if we could ensure greater resiliency in our lobster stocks. The goal of the proposed management measures that are currently being developed by ASMFC is to increase the resiliency of the Gulf of Maine/Georges Bank (GOM/GBK) lobster stock. Specifically, the Draft Addendum will look at standardizing the different management measures across Lobster Conservation Management Areas (LCMAs). While the GOM/GBK stocks have been combined into one stock, management measures, such as gauge size and v-notch definitions, are inconsistent from one LCMA to another. Under the current framework, lobsters protected in one area can be harvested in another. The Draft Addendum has the potential to establish better protections for the resource by establishing a uniform set of regulations across LCMAs. As I stated above, we know that change is happening in the Gulf of Maine and lobster populations are responding to those changes. We also know that it is critically important that we be proactive and pursue development of management measures that will ensure the fishery will be more resilient in the face of these changes. So, what changes will be proposed? The quick answer is: I don’t know yet. The Plan Development Team has been tasked with developing alternatives for consideration in the Draft Addendum. DMR will work with the lobster industry through this process to advocate for Maine fishermen and the long-term sustainability of Maine’s lobster fishery. Also under way are meetings with industry as we prepare to discuss the re-authorization of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative (MLMC) with the Maine Legislature this winter. The MLMC staff and several board members have been meeting with the lobster zone councils to share the results of their efforts over the past four years as well as a third-party audit of the Collaborative’s work. The MLMC director Matt Jacobson will give a presentation to the Lobster Advisory Council, scheduled for December 14 and to the Marine Resources Committee. After the presentation, the Committee may report out a bill to renew or modify the license surcharges that fund the Collaborative’s work. What it will look like is anybody’s best guess. My personal feeling is we must not give up on marketing this iconic Maine product and brand. Doing nothing would be a poor decision. I also want to touch on the enforcement bill that was passed in the 1st session of the 128th legislature. The bill that was passed resulted in major improvements in Maine’s ability to enforce the laws within our lobster fishery. This law has improved the ability of Maine Marine Patrol to make cases against those individuals who are violating the laws that exist for the benefit of all license holders. It also has also put teeth into the penalties for violations that are among the most damaging to the lobster resource and to other fishermen. I see these penalties as a great deterrent and I believe they are already creating improvements with compliance. It is important to note that the majority of harvesters demonstrate a commitment to the laws and regulations that sustain this fishery. However, as this fishery has grown to a half-billion-dollar industry, the temptations to cheat have also grown. A major outcome of this law change was the creation of mandatory minimum and maximum lobster license suspension lengths for the most egregious violations in the lobster fishery. They include trap molesting, fishing over the trap limit, fishing sunken trawls, scrubbing eggs, and arson or sinking another fisherman’s boat. None of these violations are things that someone might do “accidentally” so supporters of this bill felt strongly that the penalty needed to match the violation. For some, a fine or a one-year suspension is viewed as the price of doing business, and worth the possible reward. But the potential long-term loss of a license carries enough weight to be a serious deterrent. I do want to thank the Maine Lobstermen’s Association for conducting an industry-wide survey of all license holders, not just its members. The results of this survey were a valuable tool for both the Department and the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee. At the end of several days of deliberation last spring there was overwhelming support for removing violators from the water for a substantial length of time. Thanks to the strong support shown by the industry, these law changes have provided the tools to deter crime, improve Marine Patrol’s ability to enforce laws and provide a more level playing field for all Maine lobstermen. What I find amazing is some bad actors are still not stopping these egregious violations. Complaints still come in and the Marine Patrol recently wrote up William Haass of Lamoine for fishing over the trap limit. While this case has yet to go through the process, Mr. Haass received a preliminary suspension of five years, will return to the fishery with 500 traps and be required to have a vessel monitoring system on his boat for a time equal to the length of suspension. Finally, I’d like to say happy holidays and best wishes for a safe, healthy and prosperous new year.

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