Longer season, additional licenses may help Monhegan Island

First published by the MLA Newsletter, December, 2012.

This year something changed on Monhegan Island. In October, the island was approved by the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) to take part in the state’s island limited entry program, ensuring that five additional lobster licenses will be available to lobstermen who live on the island. At the same time, Monhegan’s trap limit was increased from 300 to 400 traps and the island lobstering apprenticeship requirements were rescinded. To the twelve lobstermen fishing from Monhegan and to the community of fifty who reside there year-round, these changes represent a breath of hope.

In 1995, Monhegan’s traditional closed season and 600 trap limit became recognized by the state legislature. Island lobstermen (17 at the time) could fish between January 1 and May 31, and then were required to cease lobstering. No other lobstermen could infringe on Monhegan bottom. The season was designed to take advantage of winter lobster prices and on-island jobs during the summer. Then in 2007, Monhegan lobstermen petitioned the state to change the dates of the season. In order to take advantage of the prolific fall fishery, Monhegan lobstermen wanted to move their opening date to October 1. “We were missing the entire fall run,” explained Matt Weber, a Monhegan lobsterman. “Plus the price in the winter time never got as high as it used to. What had traditionally worked out here wasn’t working.”

Carl Wilson, lobster research scientist at DMR, noted the same thing. “The premium price [for winter lobsters] was largely lost because the supply went up and the markets changed,” he said. DMR cannot change lobster regulations based on economic factors, however. So, in the interest of conservation, DMR asked the lobstermen to give something back in exchange for a longer season (250 days in total). That something was a reduction in the number of traps fished. The state legislature agreed to open the Monhegan lobster season on November 1 and to limit the number of traps to a maximum of 475 (from 600); the final trap number would be set at the discretion of the DMR commissioner each year.

Former DMR Commissioner George Lapointe put that number at 300. According to Weber, the trap limit hurt Monhegan lobstermen badly. “Slowly and inevitably we fell behind,” he said. “We were losing people.” Another island lobsterman, Doug Boynton, echoed Weber’s words. “I was in favor of trap limits to see how much it increased our profitability. But it’s not a lucrative place to fish. There’s no great market for the lobster in the winter and it’s fished out all around us. Plus expenses are higher here on the island to start with,” he said.

So Monhegan lobstermen began to visit Augusta each winter to petition the DMR commissioner to raise the trap limit. Lapointe, however, did not budge: the limit stayed at 300. In the wake of Paul LePage’s election as governor in 2010, Lapointe stepped down from the DMR in 2011. First Norman Olsen was appointed to the post, and then Patrick Keliher. “We met with Keliher and he threw us a bone,” Weber continued. Keliher suggested to the Monhegan lobstermen that an additional hundred traps might be an option provided the island joined the island limited entry license program.

The island limited entry lobster license program allows islands with year-round populations to petition DMR for a select number of lobster licenses to be set aside for qualified island residents. The program recognizes that lobstering is often the principal economic mainstay of an island’s economy. Keeping those would be island lobstermen on the long waiting lists for a license in their respective zone would have a negative effect on the islands’ economic well being.

Monhegan lobstermen took the deal. “It’s always been that if you are going to fish here, you have to live here. We saw an opportunity to get more traps and save the fleet from disaster,” Weber explained. However, Monhegan’s apprenticeship program made it difficult to gain access for those from outside the island. The apprenticeship program required a new lobsterman to apprentice with an existing Monhegan lobsterman for two years before getting in to the community.

As part of Monhegan’s limited entry license program, these apprenticeship requirements have been erased. “We want to survive and to grow. So now if you have a license and you want to commit to live on the island, then you can,” Boynton said. “It makes it easier for someone with no connections to the island to fish here.” Five additional licenses are available to lobstermen who either have a license or have completed the state-mandated apprenticeship program and will live on the island for eight years. The residency requirement ensures that a lobsterman does not come to the island, fish for a year, and then move off again taking his license with him.

Weber said that one lobsterman has already taken advantage of the island limited entry program. A man who had been fishing from Port Clyde moved out to the island this summer and began lobstering on October 1. “There’s room for more. We are looking for young hardworking people with families to come out. But it’s not an easy place to live for many reasons,” he cautioned. “And the fact is, as far as the lobstering goes, this is not Matinicus. October, November and May are the good months. Every lobsterman out here has one other full-time job.”

Wilson’s data at DMR suggests that Monhegan lobstermen did benefit from the 300 trap limit initially, prior to the economic downturn in the fall of 2008. “The trap limit and change in season did give a boost to landings, around 70 percent increase,” Wilson said (see table). “But by 2009 it was not so good. Changes dictated that you were either in it for the volume or you struggled to remain profitable.” Boynton puts it more succinctly: “We had a special product in the winter, a good hard-shell lobster. Now we are catching the same shit as everyone else.”