Steaming Ahead: Maine Lobstermen’s Association Update

First published in Landings, May, 2017

It’s been a crazy spring and the busiest few months I have experienced in my 17 years with the MLA. The volume and seriousness of the issues that our lobster industry faces seem unending.

Things really took off after the forum in March. The MLA conducted a lobster quality tour, took a bus of industry members to the International Seafood Expo in Boston, attended New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) herring meetings, attended a conference in Oregon on reducing whale entanglements in the Dungeness crab fishery and attended Marine Resources Committee public hearings and work sessions.

And in April, we kept going. This time the MLA attended Atlantic States Marine Fiseries Commission (ASMFC) herring meetings, spoke about Maine lobstermen’s efforts to protect right whales at the Marine Mammal Commission’s annual meeting, presented testimony on allowing lobstermen to continue to fish in proposed coral zones at the Council’s Habitat Committee and full Council meetings, represented Maine lobstermen at the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team meeting in Rhode Island and attended more Marine Resources Committee public hearings and work sessions.

Once again, the MLA is leading the lobster industry on a vast array of important issues. In fact, the MLA was the only lobster organization present at many of these meetings. We were the only Maine lobster organization attending the critical Council herring and coral meetings and the ASMFC herring meetings. It takes a lot of time, resources and knowledge to keep the interests of our industry front and center. For MLA, it has been time well spent. Managers on the NEFMC and ASMFC are well aware of the lobster industry’s need for reliable and affordable sources of bait. And the Council is well aware of the economic devastation it would cause to Downeast lobstermen if it closed the two proposed coral zones to lobstering. As a result, the Council voted for a “preferred alternative” that will allow the lobster fishery to continue to operate; this alternative will go out for public comment in May.

Yet, of all the work the MLA has been involved in this spring, I am most proud of what we’ve done to improve the enforcement of Maine’s lobster laws. The MLA brought forward our own bill, LD 575, to revamp the penalty structure for existing laws and establish adequate minimum and maximum penalties, such as multi-year license suspensions, to deter crimes. The bill grew out of extensive discussions by the MLA Board and feedback from hundreds of lobstermen through MLA’s surveys.

The DMR also brought forward an enforcement bill, LD 1379, to allow covert trackers to be used on vessels to give Marine Patrol the tools it needs to enforce existing laws. The DMR’s bill has been controversial. There were questions about the scope of the bill and the possibility of moving too much power to the DMR. However, the intent of the bill was plain — to give DMR the tools it needs to enforce existing lobster laws. The DMR has been very clear that this bill has never been about a power grab; it is about putting tools in place to help Marine Patrol do its job.

Improving enforcement of our lobster laws is the MLA’s top priority for 2017. The system is beginning to break down with violations becoming too common, and too many bad players making a lot of money by cheating. The MLA testified in support of LD 1379 because we have heard loud and clear from the industry that the enforcement crisis has reached a critical point and must be fixed.

However, this must be done in a way that protects lobstermen. The MLA has advocated that the Legislature require an authority outside the DMR, such as the Attorney General’s office, to sign off before any covert surveillance can be conducted. While the MLA believes that the DMR and its Marine Patrol do an excellent job, today’s leaders will not always be there. It is important that any changes put in place serve the lobster industry over the long haul.

I am so grateful to the more than 30 lobstermen from all areas of the coast who came to the public hearing in April to support this bill. These lobstermen spoke about the seriousness of the enforcement problem, and asked the Committee to make the necessary changes to tighten up the bill’s language and move it forward. Commissioner Keliher did an outstanding job explaining the DMR’s intent and the process it would use to implement covert surveillance in order to make its cases. He was clear that any surveillance would take the form of a GPS tracker with no audio or video. And he made clear that no covert surveillance would take place unless there was probable cause.

Those who spoke against the bill seemed to agree that there is an enforcement problem. However, rather than constructively offer improvements to the bill or note the elements that they could support, instead they offered much drama and grandstanding at the hearing. From claims that the DMR would be videotaping lobstermen on their boats to alleging that the DMR could take their lobster license for an overdue library book, they sought to distract the conversation from the important enforcement issues. The opposition was comprised of only five lobstermen, three lawyers and one elected official.

As of this moment, the bill has yet to go through the work session and be voted on. Regardless of how this turns out, I was proud to be on the MLA team in support of this bill. It really demonstrated the difference between the MLA’s proactive, thoughtful and constructive approach and the more divisive, grandstanding tactics used by others aimed solely at halting progress.

As you ready your gear for what I hope will be another amazing lobster season, you can feel good knowing that the MLA is listening to you, our members. We have your back and we are working hard to move this industry forward in a positive direction. Thank you for your support.

As always, stay safe on the water.