Steaming Ahead: 2017 Year in Review

As we say good-bye to 2017, it is clear that it has been a year of tremendous change. Lobstermen experienced significant frustration with sluggish landings and low prices compared to 2016. The MLA was busier than ever tackling an array of issues that impact Maine lobstermen’s ability to fish and make a living. Yet due to the MLA’s input and leadership, the lobster industry has seen true successes in the policy arena during 2017.
As in recent years, the issues facing lobstermen in 2017 were far-ranging — from enforcement to coral zones to whales. When you hear the word “issue,” think meetings. Lots and lots of meetings along with plenty of emails, phone calls, official letters and follow-up. The MLA serves on the Maine Lobster License Plate board (RED Fund); staff attend the state’s Dredge Committee meetings, Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative board meetings, Lobster Advisory Council and other industry meetings. To keep up with emerging issues, the MLA goes to, you guessed it, more meetings! This year the MLA has weighed in on the remediation strategy for the Penobscot River cleanup and developing a marine debris plan for the Gulf of Maine. The MLA helped organize the Industry Day for the International Lobster conference held in Portland in June, and connected fishermen with the research team conducting the Penobscot Bay hydrographic survey this summer.
The MLA staff and Board attend many lobster zone council meetings to hear for themselves the opinions of all lobstermen on important issues such as reauthorization of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, double-tagging and other issues specific to the different zones.
While policy and advocacy are the MLA’s core activities, the MLA works hard to maintain a robust portfolio of benefits for our members: the vessel insurance program; monthly newspaper Landings; weekly email updates on relevant news; weekly lobster, bait and fuel prices; a broad range of business discounts; and health insurance enrollment assistance. In 2017, we offered several valuable programs including safety training and a trip to the Boston Seafood Show. The MLA also supported the Maine Lobstermen’s Community Alliance in running its second Maine Lobster Leadership Program last winter and bringing Canadian veterinarian Jean Lavallee to speak about lobster quality in Portland, St. George, Stonington, Swans Island, Northeast Harbor, and Gouldsboro during April.
It takes a tremendous depth of knowledge and efficient use of resources to represent Maine’s lobster industry on so many issues. While other groups may raise their voices occasionally at the Legislature or in the press on an issue that attracts a lot of attention, the MLA consistently monitors all of the issues that affect lobstermen’s livelihoods. Here are just a few examples from 2017:
Coral Closures Stopped
The MLA attended many New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) and Habitat Committee meetings as the Council developed proposals to protect deep water corals located in the Gulf of Maine. Of significant interest to Maine lobstermen were the coral zones located near Outer Schoodic Ridge and Mount Desert Rock off the downeast coast. The MLA worked closely with Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) and downeast lobstermen to understand the dire economic impact a closure could have on the area. The DMR did an excellent job utilizing its limited data to quantify the massive economic impact a closure would have had on hundreds of downeast lobstermen. In June 2017, the Council voted to allow lobstering to continue in these two coral zones, prohibiting only bottom-tending mobile gear (trawls and dredges).
Fought Increase in Lobster License Fees
The MLA lead the fight to stop the 30% increase on commercial marine license fees to help backfill the state’s budget gap and fought hard to keep DMR fully funded. The MLA successfully argued that the state of Maine could not afford to undercut the commercial fishing industry or the DMR’s ability to do its job in supporting this important economic sector. The Legislature voted to fill the DMR’s budget gap with dedicated revenue from the General Fund and dropped the proposed license fee increase.
License Revocations for Intentional Lobster Violations
The MLA spent many hours before the Marine Resources Committee and in the halls of the State House advocating for passage of the enforcement bill (LD 575) brought forward by the MLA. MLA members had expressed growing concern that DMR’s existing enforcement and penalty structure was not adequate to deter increased cheating by the few bad lobstermen. Left unchecked, the situation could have escalated, with the cheaters reaping huge financial rewards from illegal behavior while the honest lobstermen could only sit back and watch.
The MLA conducted an industry-wide survey and dedicated its 2017 Annual Meeting to discussing strategies to address this issue. Based on industry feedback, the MLA proposed LD 575 to set minimum and maximum penalties for the most egregious intentional crimes. Violations that could be accidental (shorts, V-notches, etc.) were left unchanged. During this process, the MLA supported DMR’s proposal to conduct covert investigations of those suspected of fishing over the trap limit and fishing sunken trawls if there was probable cause, which was included in LD 575. The Maine Lobstering Union mounted a strong opposition to this bill but in the end the MLA prevailed. Lobstermen now face a minimum 2-year loss of license for trap molesting, minimum 3-year loss of license for fishing over the trap limit and fishing sunken trawls, a minimum 4-year loss of license for scrubbing eggers, and a permanent loss of license for arson or destruction of a lobster boat. Since this summer, Marine Patrol has been making cases, bad players are losing their licenses, and lobstermen are now fishing on a level playing field.
Whales
When it comes to whale rules, the MLA remains the trusted voice of the Maine lobster fishery, advocating for an approach that doesn’t sacrifice lobstermen’s ability to make a living. 2017 was a year of grave concern regarding the plight of right whales. The year ended with 17 right whale deaths (12 in Canada and 5 in the U.S.), with five live entanglements in Canada, and only five whales born. Researchers believe that the right whale population has been declining since 2010. It now numbers 450, with only about 100 breeding females.
Right whales mean a lot of meetings. During 2017 the MLA was present at every meeting related to right whales, including the stock assessment review group, Take Reduction Team meetings and webinars, and the annual right whale consortium meeting in Canada. The MLA presented a talk on the Maine lobster industry’s efforts to protect whales at the Marine Mammal Commission’s annual meeting in April and visited the NMFS gear shed to review the gear removed from whales since implementation of the sinking line rule.
The MLA has not minced its words on a proposal to immediately implement 1,700-pound weak rope immediately and ropeless fishing within ten years. Ropeless fishing simply is not viable for the Maine lobster fishery. More research is needed to understand the safety, operational and economic implications of fishing weak rope. The MLA has demanded that Canada implement a comparable whale protection plan before any U.S. fishermen are asked to do more. The MLA is working closely with DMR on research to measure the functional breaking strength of lobster endlines currently fished and to assess the working loads needed for our vessels to haul gear safely.
The MLA also presented at a conference in Oregon to educate Dungeness crab fishermen and managers on Maine’s efforts to protect whales, as the crab fishery grapples with how to mitigate an increase in gear entanglements with whales.
Bait – Herring and Menhaden
Management changes were passed in 2017 for both herring and menhaden. The MLA provided a strong voice for the lobster industry, advocating for a steady, sustainable supply of these important, local bait sources.
Herring management moved forward through both the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and the NEFMC. In May, the ASMFC passed Addendum I to the herring plan to provide managers with additional tools to control the rate and effort of Area 1A catch to spread landings across the months when demand for lobster bait is highest.
The MLA closely monitored NEFMC’s development of Amendment 8 to the federal herring plan. Amendment 8 could affect the overall herring quota by seeking to balance the commercial herring quota with the ecological needs of the Gulf of Maine and by identifying where and when midwater trawlers may fish to reduce localized depletion and gear conflict. Through attendance at numerous NEFMC, Herring Committee, and Management Strategy Evaluation meetings, the MLA continually advocated for maintaining a sustainable and affordable bait supply for Maine lobstermen.
On the menhaden front, the MLA strongly argued for Maine to receive a larger share of the menhaden quota and to sustain the 6,000-pound incidental fishery for small boats. In November, ASMFC passed Amendment 3 to the menhaden plan, which increased the coastwide menhaden quota, increased Maine’s portion of the quota, maintained the episodic quota and the small-scale incidental fishery allowance of 6,000 pounds per day.
ASMFC Lobster, Jonah Crab and Shrimp
The MLA supported changes to the ASMFC Jonah Crab plan, approved last January, to allow lobstermen to take up to one 5-gallon pail of Jonah crab claws detached at sea. Although this has been a traditional practice for many, it had become illegal under the ASMFC’s first Jonah crab plan passed in 2015. DMR implemented these new regulations for lobstermen in November.
The MLA participates in the ASMFC subcommittee considering options to protect the coastal economy if the Gulf of Maine/Georges Bank lobster stock experiences a decline. As part of this process, ASMFC has initiated Addendum XXVII to consider the standardization of management measures across Lobster Conservation Management Areas (LCMAs). This addendum charges the Plan Development Team (PDT) with reviewing current management approaches and developing management alternatives for consideration in the Draft Addendum.
MLA Opposes Monhegan Wind Project
The MLA stated its opposition to the Maine Aqua Ventus (MAV) offshore wind project in November. The MLA expressed concern over the MAV project’s lack of effective communication with the fishing industry, which has led to a complete breakdown in trust. The MLA pointed out that, as Maine’s first wind development, this project sets a very poor precedent on how to work with Maine’s affected fishing communities.
MLA Supports Portland’s Working Waterfront
The MLA expressed support in October of the petition organized by local fishermen to protect Portland’s working waterfront. The MLA shares fishermen’s concerns over proposals to redevelop properties along Commercial Street that have traditionally supported Maine’s fishing and marine industries. Portland’s working waterfront is unique and valuable not only economically, but also for its tremendous cultural, social and historic characteristics.  
Working with Maine Congressional Delegation
During the year, the MLA raised several important issues with the Maine Congressional delegation. These issues include the need for a dedicated funding source for lobster science, concern over federal budget cuts, the need for lobstermen to have access to affordable health insurance, the need to fund safety training and to revise the Coast Guard’s life raft repacking schedule, concern over U.S. trade policy including the impact of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the EU, the need for U.S. and Canadian cooperation to protect right whales, the need for NMFS to allow federally permitted lobster license holders to use a substitute vessel during vessel breakdowns, and the request for an exemption for the lobster industry from the EPA’s Tier 4 engine requirements.
Health Insurance Enrollment
The MLA continued its Health Insurance Navigator services, successfully working with many coastal families who needed help understanding health insurance options to get them through the enrollment process. Due to MLA’s successful track record, the association was rewarded with another Navigator contract to help our constituents enroll in 2018 plans when many organizations faced funding cuts. The MLA welcomed Navigator Bridget Thornton in the fall; Bridget did an outstanding job enrolling hundreds of lobstermen and their families during the short six-week open enrollment period. MLA’s Navigators work year-round helping many troubleshoot their health insurance, enrollment follow-up, assisting with paperwork and gain access to health care locally.
PFD Project Advisor
MLA is part of the Northeast Center (NEC) Commercial Fishing Advisory Board and has worked with NEC on a study to identify a life jacket for lobstermen that would be comfortable and safe to work in on deck. To date, NEC researchers have tested nine different life jackets with lobstermen in Maine and Massachusetts. Some were tested during winter fishing; others during summer fishing. The NEC will work with life jacket manufacturers to improve designs based on fishermen’s comments. The MLA also collaborated with Fishing Partnership Support Services and McMillan Offshore Survival to connect lobstermen with safety and drill conductor trainings around the state.
MLA Shares the Maine Lobster Industry’s Story
MLA joined ASMFC managers and scientists in November to represent the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery at the Ocean Tipping Points Workshop in Santa Barbara, CA. Tipping points occur when small shifts in human pressures or environmental conditions bring about large, sometimes abrupt changes in a system. The Ocean Tipping Points model provides a framework to utilize new tools including identifying thresholds, early warning indicators, and trade-off analysis. The trade-off analysis allows managers and stakeholders to weigh the costs and benefits of management changes versus the economic loss or gain from the action.
The MLA also presented at several conferences including the Future of Seafood conference at the Boston Museum of Science, the Marine Mammal Commission Annual Meeting and a Dungeness Crab fishery stakeholders meeting on whale mitigation measures.
Wow! Talk about a busy year. And 2018 promises to be just as eventful. Yet this summary shows clearly why the MLA continues to be the state’s leading advocate for Maine’s lobstermen.
As we’ve done since 1954, the MLA will continue to pursue its mission to advocate for a sustainable lobster resource and the fishermen and communities that depend on it. The organization has been in business for more than 60 years, a sign of its value to Maine’s lobstering communities. That so much can be accomplished in a single year with so few paid employees is an indication of the dedication of the MLA’s board of directors and staff. Take some time to consider all that the MLA has done on your behalf during this past year. And I hope to see you at the Annual Meeting in March!
As always, stay safe on the water.