June 12, 2013

House won't overturn fines for lobsters caught by ground fishermen

AUGUSTA — Maine-based groundfishing boats that catch lobsters in federally regulated waters probably will continue to face the threat fines as large as $50,000, with the defeat of a bill that would have lifted the state-assessed penalties on Maine fishermen.

click image to enlarge

In this Jan. 28 file photo, a ground fisherman makes his way back toward shore near the Portland Fish Pier. The Maine House on Tuesday rejected a bill that would have eliminated state fines on ground fishermen for incidentally caught lobsters.

Portland Press Herald file photo by Gabe Souza

click image to enlarge


The House voted 106–38 Tuesday to reject the bill, which supporters billed as a last-ditch effort to keep the remaining few dozen groundfish boats in the state. Last week, the Senate voted 28–7 to defeat the bill.

L.D. 1549 was designed to ensure that the groundfishing fleet can keep lobsters that come up in trawl nets and sell them in states that allow such lobsters to be landed.

Opponents said the bill would lead to further loosening of restrictions on sales of incidentally caught lobsters, a practice the lobster industry fiercely opposes because of concerns about its effect on the state's most valuable fishery.

The votes in the Senate and House broke largely along regional lines, with many lawmakers from the Portland area voting to remove the penalty provision and lawmakers from elsewhere voting to defeat the bill. The remainder of Maine's groundfish industry, and its infrastructure, is based primarily in the port of Portland.

James Odlin, who owns and operates three groundfishing boats in Portland and two in Massachusetts, is one of the dozen or so fishermen who would have benefited from the bill. Odlin has also pushed for other "bycatch" legislation, including a proposal by Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, that would have allowed Maine trawlers to land and sell lobster bycatch in Maine.

Haskell also sponsored L.D. 1549.

The Legislature's Marine Resources Committee endorsed an amended version of the bill, 7–6, on May 22; but some committee members who had supported the bill flipped their votes on Tuesday.

Rep. Jeremy Saxton, D-Harpswell, was one of them. He said he had heard from many lobstermen who opposed the bill. Opposition in the lobster industry steadily increased after the committee held a public hearing and endorsed the bill on the same day.

Many lobstermen said the bill was a foot in the door for future efforts to increase bycatch in Maine. Maine now prohibits sales of lobsters caught in trawl nets, as does Canada. The state also penalizes commercial vessels licensed in Maine for landing or storing lobsters in Area 3, a federally regulated zone that extends from Maine to the mid-Atlantic states and begins about 40 miles off the Maine coast. The penalty can be as much as $50,000, although the Department of Marine Resources said that the penalty is rarely assessed.

Commercial boats licensed in other states may keep lobsters in Area 3.

Supporters of the bill said the threat of hefty fines could prompt the state's remaining groundfishing boats to leave for out-of-state ports. Odlin sounded the same warning for his remaining boats during the public hearing May 22.

Opponents countered that the bill would do little to save the industry but could further threaten the lobster fishery, which remains the backbone of the state marine economy.

Maine's groundfish fleet consisted of about 350 boats in the 1990s. It had about 70 boats in 2012. The catch has shrunk over that period, from 44.8 million pounds worth $33 million during the 1990s to 6.6 million pounds worth $6.2 million in 2009.

Rep. Wayne Parry, R-Arundel, a lobsterman, voted with the minority on Tuesday. Parry said he opposes the dragging of lobsters but the bill was a compromise that he hoped would keep the groundfish industry in Portland.

Steve Mistler — 620-7016
Twitter: @stevemistler

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