The Marine Resources Committee got to work in earnest on lobster bills during March. Public hearings have been held on 13 lobster-related bills. As of March 22, one bill has been approved by the Committee and four have been rejected. Additional public hearings and work session are being scheduled weekly.
Governor LePage announced at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum that he no longer supported increases in marine license fees to fill the Department of Marine Resources’s (DMR) budget gap. The MLA had testified against the proposal before a joint meeting of the Appropriations and Finance and Marine Resources Committees in February. The DMR, therefore, has proposed to fill its budget gap by maintaining the existing marine license fee structure, but to reallocate base license fees, of which 100% currently goes to the General Fund (license fee not including existing surcharges). The DMR plans to dedicate 30% of this license fee revenue to a dedicated department account, with the remaining 70% going to the General Fund. The Marine Resources Committee accepted this proposal and sent its recommendation to the Appropriations Committee.
The Marine Resources Committee approved a longer day for lobster fishing in the fall, changing the start time for hauling in October to 4 a.m. by amending LD 14 An Act to Extend the Legal Hours for Harvesting Lobster, sponsored by Rep. Kumiega of Deer Isle. This bill originally proposed to allow lobstermen to begin hauling traps at 5 a.m. during the month of October. The MLA and others from the lobster industry testified in favor of the bill. The MLA noted that the start time for hauling has been a long-standing issue for Downeast lobstermen and that LD 14 proposed a good compromise. The amendment to allow lobstermen to begin hauling at 4 a.m. during the month of October was supported by the Lobster Advisory Council and the MLA. While the DMR had opposed LD 14 during the public hearing, it supported this amendment at the work session. The bill is expected to pass the full Legislature and be implemented in September.
The Committee killed LD 392 An Act Regarding Haul Times Outside the 3-mile Line, which was brought to remove time of day fishing restrictions for Zone A lobstermen fishing offshore. The Committee concluded that LD 14 addressed the majority of issues identified in this bill and instead approved LD 14.
The Committee did not support LD 201 An Act to Provide Flexibility in the Purchase of Lobster Trap Tags, sponsored by Rep. Kumiega of Deer Isle, which proposed to allow a lobsterman to purchase up to the maximum number of trap tags purchased under that license in any previous year. The MLA opposed this bill, raising the concern that this would have a fiscal impact on DMR at a time when the department is seeking to increase license fees. The Committee did not support this bill due to its concerns about the fiscal impacts this bill would have on the DMR budget.
The Committee killed two bills sponsored by Rep. Hubbell to address gear conflict issues stemming from Zone C lobstermen fishing gear in Zone B. Zone B lobstermen believe that the influx of Zone C lobstermen, which occurred because that zone was open until recently, resulted in a massive influx of traps being fished in Zone B. The public hearing for LD 149 An Act to Provide Additional Management for Limited-entry Lobster Zones and LD 616 An Act to Ensure Consistent Access to Limited Entry Lobster Zones drew a huge crowd of lobstermen from Zones B and C that filled the seats in the Committee room and two overflow rooms. These bills sought to limit the amount of gear that could be fished outside any home zone. The bill’s proposals included prohibiting new entrants to the lobster fishery from fishing gear outside a home zone, allowing only 25% of lobster gear to be fished outside a home zone, implementing most restrictive rules on exit ratios and requiring the Commissioner to ensure parity regarding the number of second zone tags fished across zones. The Committee voted unanimously “Ought not to Pass” on both bills. The DMR has pledged to work more closely with Zones B and C lobstermen to identify solutions to this issue which has become a major enforcement concern for the department.
The MRC killed LD 113 An Act to Stabilize Lobster Bait Prices, sponsored by Rep. Alley of Beals, which proposed ideas aimed at stabilizing the price of lobster bait. The DMR, MLA and several representatives from the herring industry opposed this bill because the Legislature does not have the jurisdiction to address the issue since bait species are managed through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the New England Fishery Management Council. There was also concern that the concepts put forward would likely destabilize the bait fishery.
Several bills are still in process. A public hearing was held for LD 704 An Act to Give the Department of Marine Resources Flexibility with Licensing in the Herring Fishery, sponsored by Rep. Parry of Arundel. This bill would allow the DMR Commissioner to establish different landings limits for herring fishermen who recorded landings of herring in Maine prior to January 1, 2017. The public hearing was held on March 13; work session took place on March 22.
The Committee took public testimony on March 22 on two bills addressing marine debris. LD 703 An Act to Address Marine Debris Resulting for Commercial Activities, sponsored by Rep. Devin of Newcastle, is a concept bill to address the problem of marine debris resulting from commercial activities such as commercial fishing and aquaculture. LD 705 An Act to Prevent Marine Debris, also sponsored by Rep. Devin on behalf of the DMR, proposes to prohibit possession of materials used to package lobster or crab bait, including the plastic wrapping and cardboard cartons, on a lobster vessel, and prohibits the discarding or abandoning of these materials into the ocean. Violation of this provision is a civil violation, with a fine of $250.
LD 922 An Act Directing the Commissioner of Marine Resources to Investigate Conditions of Sheepscot Pond Related to a Management Plan for Anadromous Fish Species, sponsored by Rep. Pierce of Dresden, also went to public hearing on March 22. This bill proposes to open and keep operational the fishway on the Sheepscot River in Palermo from April 15 to June 30 annually and to study the Sheepscot Pond for the purpose of developing a management plan for anadromous fish species.
A concept draft, LD 373 An Act to Create Pathways to Enter Alternative Marine Industries, put forward by Rep. Alley, proposed to allow a person who has completed a lobster and crab fishing apprenticeship to enter a lottery to be allowed to engage in scallop harvesting in the lobstering off-season. While there was support for the sentiment of this bill, no one testified in favor of it at the public hearing. The Committee was due to vote on this bill on March 22.
LD 252 An Act To Improve Safety in the Disposal of Expired Marine Flares, sponsored by Rep. McCreight of Harpswell, proposes to establish within the Department of Public Safety programs for the collection and disposal of expired marine flares and for public education regarding expired marine flares. The public hearing was held on March 13 and work session scheduled for March 22.
The MLA worked with Sen. Langley to put forward LD 575 An Act to Improve Enforcement of Maine’s Lobster Laws, based on feedback from an industry-wide survey on enforcement. This concept draft would establish minimum penalties for certain lobster violations as a deterrent to violating the law. It also explores requiring lobster license holders found guilty of violating marine conservation laws to pay restitution to the state. In addition, lobster license holders convicted of marine resource violation(s) resulting in a license suspension who re-enter the lobster fishery would return as a new entrant and have a vessel monitoring system aboard the vessel. The public hearing was held on March 6. The bill was well received, with most speaking in favor of the need for a strategy to improve how the state enforces our existing laws. However, the Maine Lobstering Union opposed the bill, stating, “If you were to listen to all the proposed ideas in this bill, I would not blame you if you thought that we really were all criminals! WOW!!!”
Only three lobster-related bills have not yet printed: LR 743 An Act to Make Technical Changes to Maine’s Marine Resources Laws; LR 750 An Act Regarding Enforcement of Marne Resources Laws and Suspensions of Marine Resources Licenses; LR 751 An Act to Extend the Time for an Appeal of License Denial for Military Members. Two additional bills were submitted but are not expected to move forward: LR 1348 An Act to Amend the Laws Regarding Marine Resources and LR 1743 An Act to Incentivize Private Investment of Lobster Processing in Maine.
Bills can be tracked online through the Legislature’s Web site at www.legislature.maine.gov. An update on the activities of the Marine Resources Committee is distributed weekly. Contact the Marine Resources Committee clerk, Julia Brown at 287-1337 or email Julia.Brown@Legislature.Maine.gov to get on the distribution list.
The Story Behind LD 575
The MLA put forward the concept draft LD 575 An Act to Improve the Enforcement of Maine’s Lobster Laws. This bill proposes to improve the enforcement of Maine’s lobster laws by establishing minimum penalties as a way to deter crime, to impose restrictions on violators who re-enter the lobster fishery and to possibly require those found guilty to pay restitution to the state to cover the cost of the investigation.
LD 575 is the result of a growing desire among lobstermen to improve enforcement of Maine’s lobster laws. In recent years, lobster landings and value have grown significantly, especially offshore and in Downeast Maine. The robust resource and stable price have meant that there is money to be made in the fishery. Like any other industry, while the majority of Maine lobstermen are hardworking and honest individuals, there are a few bad apples. There is growing concern that the financial rewards are too great for those who break the law. With earning potential at a record high, some lobstermen will circumvent the trap limit by fishing sunken trawls or untagged traps because the financial rewards are so great. It seems that even when the offenders are caught, cheating pays off because they are still ahead after they pay any fines or even lose their license for a period of time. And then they come back and pick up where they left off.
The MLA Board took this issue to heart. The MLA’s consistent philosophy has been to be proactive on issues in order to get ahead of them. In this spirit, the MLA identified enforcement issues a priority for 2017. It is important to note that the MLA does not believes that this is a widespread, rampant problem. Rather, the board recognizes that the rewards for cheating are great and wants to address it while the problem still lies with a minority of the fishery. It is very difficult to get Maine lobstermen to agree on much, but the MLA board found that most lobstermen agree that enforcement our lobster laws needs to improve.
As the MLA Board delved deeper into exploring this issue, it was guided by three points of consensus: 1) that all lobstermen deserve to work on a level playing field; 2) penalties are not severe enough to deter illegal activity and; 3) the current system gives cheaters all the tools they need to continue cheating. From there, the board generated a long list of issues that could be addressed, ranging from abuse of replacement tags, fishing sunken trawls, night hauling and carrying large crew to how to make penalties severe enough to deter these crimes.
The MLA met with Commissioner Keliher, policy director Deirdre Gilbert, and Colonel Cornish to discuss a range of issues and potential approaches to deter crime and better enforce the laws. The board then conducted an email survey among the MLA membership to get feedback on these issues. Using this initial feedback, the MLA narrowed down the list of issues then conducted a second electronic survey, this time distributed industry-wide. The survey was sent to all lobstermen with an email address (~3,100) and was posted on Facebook. We received 400 responses, a 13% response rate. This input served as the basis of the concept draft bill presented to the Marine Resources Committee as LD 575.
Two of the issues in the second survey – the number of people fishing aboard a lobster boat with a Class III license and potential changes to curb night hauling – are not included in LD 575. While these two issues are a growing concern for the lobster industry, they were not a concern for the majority of those who responded to the survey.
Three items are included in LD 575: establishing minimum penalties, putting limitations on violators who re-enter the fishery and a requirement for restitution if convicted.
Minimum penalties are included as a way to finetune the penalty structure to ensure that penalties are severe enough to deter lobstermen from violating the law. In contrast to setting a defined penalty, a minimum penalty approach would allow the Commissioner some flexibility and discretion to adjust the penalty to fit the circumstances of each case under the Administrative Suspension process.
The industry identified two separate tiers under this approach: monetary penalties for those crimes where mistakes can be made, such as keeping short, over-sized, v-notched or egg-bearing female lobsters, but with higher minimum penalties for repeat offenders, and license suspension for those crimes that are deliberate by their nature, such as scrubbing lobsters, fishing over the trap limit, fishing sunken trawls or untagged gear, and molesting lobster traps.
Many in the industry have questioned Maine’s current policy that lets offenders who have served their time come back into the lobster fishery and pick up where they left off, especially when there are long waiting lists of Apprentices eager for the chance to become a commercial lobsterman. The MLA explored two ideas put forward by the industry: 1) starting violators who reenter the fishery at 300 traps and allowing them to build up 100 traps per year like a new entrant, and 2) requiring violators to install a vessel monitoring system (VMS) to allow Marine Patrol to more easily monitor activities. Both of these proposals received strong support in the survey and are included for consideration in the concept draft.
Finally, the notion of requiring offenders to pay restitution was raised an option to explore given the significant amount of resources it takes for DMR to make an enforcement case. Given the constant struggle to keep the DMR and Marine Patrol fully funded, the MLA board proposed the idea to the industry that those convicted should pay restitution. They found this idea was very popular with the industry, and included it as part of this concept draft.
The MLA hopes that LD 575 will result in substantive changes that will deter crime on the water, improve Marine Patrol’s ability to enforce current laws, get bad actors off the water, and provide a fairer and more level playing field for all Maine lobstermen.