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Guest Column: Lobster licensing system facing changes

First published in Landings, January, 2014.


The average age of a license holder is well past 50. And for someone at the bottom of a closed zone waiting list the wait is approaching 50 years. These men and women are working in the stern with little realistic chance of getting a license before retirement age. The GMRI study also shows that only a very small percentage of student license holders transition to commercial licenses.

Of course, the story in Zone C is different. C is an open zone and, on paper, effort has been relatively stable. Most Zone C fishermen will say that effort on the water has increased as older fishermen have retired and younger, more aggressive captains have taken their place. The decline of alternative fisheries such as scallops, urchins, shrimp and groundfish surely plays a role as well.

So what do we do? Last session, the Legislature took a small step by allowing zones to change the currency for entry from traps to licenses. Zones A and B have taken advantage of that option, with wait times significantly changed in those zones.

What other options are available? We have to be mindful of overall effort in the fishery, and the existing latent effort has made managing the fishery more complicated. Yet it is a consideration we must deal with because settlement studies, which have historically predicted growth and decline of lobster numbers accurately, are now indicating a three­year decline. The 2013 numbers are lower than any since the settlement studies started in the mid­1980s.

Based on the index, it’s likely that landings will decline five to seven years from now, making now the time to ask the tough questions and prepare ourselves. Whatever we do must be well considered and take into account the overall impact on the fishery, not just make tweaks here or there.

The Marine Resources Committee has statutory permission to report out a bill that could make changes to lobster licensing. Based on the need for a big picture view, some possible changes that have been discussed include: lower trap limits for new entrants; a limited commercial license for semi­retired captains; tiered landing requirements to retain levels of tags. Without significantly impacting effort, we could consider granting people who have completed the apprentice program limited licenses for 50 traps while they wait on the list for a full license.

Meanwhile, there are lobstermen whose family members hold licenses but do not use them. Some older lobstermen only use a fraction of their tags, but are hoping the rules will change and that they can get out of the industry on good terms by selling their licenses and boats. Maine has carefully avoided license transferability. That has kept the cost of entering the fishery more affordable, and has allowed Maine to avoid corporate takeover and concentration of ownership of the industry.

Industry feedback will be very important as the Marine Resources Committee grapples with these issues over the next few months. Changes need to be examined in terms of effort, latent effort and viability of the industry. We must consider how these factors will play out over time and the input the Department of Marine Resources gathers in future industry meetings. This legislative session is short, with developments taking place on a condensed timeline. So be aware of hearing notices and make your voice heard.

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