First published in Landings, February, 2016.
A Look Back at 2015
Since 1954, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) has pursued its mission to advocate for a sustainable lobster resource and the fishermen and communities that depend on it. 2015 was another busy and successful year for the MLA and for Maine’s lobster industry. This month I’d like to take stock of how the MLA has served its members on the vast array of issues lobstermen face.
Staying in touch with lobstermen
The MLA spends a lot of time keeping its ear to the ground to keep in touch with lobstermen. We gain from the insight of MLA Board members and from attending the many zone council and Lobster Advisory Council meetings around the state. This has been particularly important in 2015 as these councils discussed potential changes to the state’s lobster licensing program and the development of a state Lobster Fishery Management Plan. The MLA has attended all of the DMR Commissioner’s meetings over the past three years to hear the industry’s suggestions and concerns on this sensitive issue.
The MLA regularly meets with DMR staff and the Commissioner to keep lobster issues front and center with the agency. We stay in close contact with the members of the Legislature, Governor and our federal delegation as relevant issues arise.
The MLA works not only with DMR but with other state agencies that influence the lobster fishery including the Board of Pesticides Control (BPC), Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Transportation. In 2015, these issues ranged from examining the effects of pesticide residues on the lobster stocks in Maine to monitoring proposed dredging projects and other actions that may affect the lobster industry. Over the past year, the MLA spent a considerable amount of time attending meetings and talking with fishermen, government officials and other stakeholders on the proposed Searsport dredge project which is now on hold. The MLA submitted comments to the state highlighting the many concerns that have been voiced from local fishermen on the project.
Keeping Maine’s lobster industry profitable
Profitability has been a major concern in the lobster industry since the international financial crisis in 2008. The economic situation has had its ups and downs since then. During the past seven years, the MLA has worked to put tools in place to stabilize profitability. In addition to working with lobstermen and dealers to improve lobster handling and lobster quality, the MLA added its voice to many others in lobbying the Legislature to establish and adequately fund a marketing program for Maine lobster. As a result of our collective efforts, the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative was established in 2013.
Since then, the MLA regularly attends Collaborative meetings to monitor its activities and provide accountability back to lobstermen. MLA staff and board members also regularly attend the annual Seafood Expo North America (formerly the Boston Seafood Show) to stay up-to-date on international seafood marketing efforts.
Keeping Lobstermen Healthy and Safe
2015 marked the completion of MLA’s second year helping fishermen and their families get health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. Since we began this work, the MLA has assisted hundreds of fishing families along the coast in understanding the health insurance options available to them and completing enrollments.
In the fall, MLA said good-bye to our first health insurance Navigator, April Gilmore McNutt, who made the MLA the go-to resource for fishermen with health insurance questions. The MLA then welcomed Alisha Keezer who has ably filled April’s shoes and taken MLA’s health insurance assistance to a new level.
The MLA works with many organizations and businesses in Maine’s health insurance community to assist with enrollment and health insurance outreach events. The MLA also collaborates with researchers who are working to understand the health and safety challenges facing Maine fishermen. We have helped distribute surveys to fishermen that address health issues, safety at sea and the ergonomics of fishing, research that could improve fishing practices for lobstermen. In 2015, the MLA partnered with Fishing Partnership Support Services of Massachusetts to offer a low-cost CPR and ergonomics workshop as well as free safety and drill conductor training in Portland.
The new Coast Guard fishing vessel safety regulations have been a challenge for the fishing industry. The MLA made sure that lobstermen were informed of the new requirements including the October 2015 deadline for mandatory fishing vessel safety exams for those operating in federal waters and the life raft requirements which will become effective later this year and in 2017. Coast Guard representatives attended the 2015 MLA Annual Meeting to answer questions about these regulations. The MLA is working with Fishing Partnership Support Services and Maine’s federal delegation to request federal funding to expand safety training opportunities in Maine and to discuss extending the life raft repacking requirement to every two years.
MLA in the Community
Because the MLA is a membership organization, we take our connection to Maine’s fishing communities and organizations seriously. Each year the MLA attends the Maine Fishermen’s Forum, the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association weekend and the Lobster Institute Town meeting to interact and learn from other fishing associations. In 2015, the MLA also participated in the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership’s strategic planning work and presented on the importance of the Casco Bay lobster fishery at the “State of the Bay” conference. The MLA met with Vinalhaven lobstermen to discuss whale rules and other issues, and attended many other conferences and networking events including the Maine Association of Non-Profits sustainable food panel and Fishing Partnership Support Service’s Fishermen’s Health meeting.
Over the past several years, the MLA worked closely with the Maine Maritime Museum on its new exhibit, Lobstering and the Maine Coast, which premiered in 2015. The MLA provided technical advice on exhibit content, recruited lobster buoys for the installation and participated in the opening events. The MLA also gave presentations as part of the Museum’s lecture series celebrating the lobster industry.
The MLA regularly answers calls from our members, the public and the press about lobster issues, and we serve as a resource for many students, universities and other organizations seeking information on the lobster industry. MLA advised the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation on how regulations and lobster fishing practices can lead to lost fishing gear, attended NOAA’s marine debris conference which focused on derelict fishing gear, and served on the Steering Committee for the American Lobster in a Changing Ecosystem conference in Prince Edward Island during which the MLA presented on the economics of the Maine lobster fishery.
The MLA at the Legislature
The MLA is an active participant in Maine’s legislative process, interacting regularly with the Marine Resources Committee and state legislators. In 2015, MLA attended public hearings and provided comments on more than ten pieces of legislation addressing an array of issues such as the lobster entry system, latent effort and enforcement of marine laws. The MLA was one of many voices successfully urging the Legislature to keep the St. Croix River open to allow the passage of alewives.
MLA in Policy and Management
Lobster is a public resource, and with that status comes a vast array of management and regulatory issues. The MLA keeps track of all of them, and works to ensure that when the dust settles, Maine lobstermen are still fishing and able to make a living.
When it came to the whale rules, 2015 was a busy year. The MLA worked with DMR and lobstermen to identify ways to reduce the risk from vertical lines in the water that the Maine lobster industry could live with. This included zone-by-zone trawling up measures which increase as a vessel moves offshore. Importantly, these rules included the creation of the 6-mile line which lessened the length of trawls needed at the 3-mile line. The original proposal required trawling up immediately at 3 miles out to twleve miles.
Following the initial implementation of the whale rules, the MLA helped lead the effort to exempt a ¼-mile buffer around Maine’s islands from the trawling up requirements. The MLA attended the Take Reduction Team meetings, submitted written comments and distributed information to the industry.
The MLA commented on NOAA’s proposal to expand right whale critical habitat in the Gulf of Maine, urging them to scale it back even though NOAA determined “that neither commercial nor recreational fishery-related activities are expected to affect the essential features of right whale foraging habitat.” The MLA also commented on the important annual right whale stock assessment, pushing for a balanced assessment of whales that focuses on the progress and recovery of the species. To this end, the MLA attended the Science Review Group (SRG) meeting which advises NMFS on marine mammal stock assessments. The MLA spoke at the Marine Mammal Commission’s Annual Meeting about the Maine lobster industry’s involvement in the Take Reduction Team process and on efforts to protect whales. The MLA prepared comments against NOAA’s proposed rule to implement a ban on seafood imports that do not meet U.S. marine mammal protection standards. The MLA also participated in the review of NOAA’s Protected Resources program.
The MLA is a member of the Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction based at the New England Aquarium, and continues to work with scientists to find operationally-feasible methods to reduce whale entanglements in lobster gear.
Habitat and Cod Bycatch
The MLA tracked the development of the New England Fishery Management Council’s (NEFMC) Habitat Amendment. The MLA attended public hearings and provided comments to ensure that lobster gear is not excluded from any of the revised habitat areas. The MLA also weighed in on the highly politicized debate over the rate and impact of cod bycatch in lobster traps. The MLA emphasized that cod bycatch in lobster traps is rare; most cod caught in a trap are returned to the sea alive. The MLA has met with researchers at University of Maine who are studying this issue. So far, Maine lobstermen have not been affected by these regulations.
The MLA continually tracks herring management at the NEFMC and the ASMFC. The herring stock has rebuilt since the 1990’s and there is now a broad range of age classes with older and larger fish. The MLA is following development of NEFMC’s Amendment 8 which addresses the biological needs of Atlantic herring and its importance as a forage species. The amendment will consider a range of alternatives concerning the amount of herring that should be allocated to the commercial fishery. The final plan could be in force for the 2017 fishing year. The MLA monitors ASMFC’s days-out meetings to manage the inshore quota and tracks weekly landings. The MLA also tracked development of ASMFC’s Herring Amendment 3 which will implement stronger protections for spawning herring.
The MLA commented on ASFMC’s public information document to development a new shrimp management plan. The MLA urged the Commission not to implement a limited entry system, but rather to implement a management approach which protects spawning females, examines the impact of gear on shrimp stocks and allows Maine fishermen from the entire length of the coast an opportunity to access the resource.
National Monument and Federal Observers
The MLA joined several other regional fishing associations in opposing designation of any National Monument in the Gulf of Maine under the Antiquities Act. Such a designation could permanently ban fishing and other activities in the area and could be expanded at any time in the future. MLA’s letter urged President Obama to implement any new ocean protections measures through existing the management process, namely the NEFMC which includes broad stakeholder input. The MLA also sent a letter to NMFS expressing concern over the expansion of the federal at-sea observer program to Maine lobstermen, and urged them to collaborate with DMR to streamlined or combine programs.
Collaboration with others
The MLA regularly collaborates with the region’s scientists and connects scientists and students with lobstermen who can assist in their research. In 2015, the MLA Board hosted scientists from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute to provide feedback on how to improve the model which predicts the timing of the lobster shed to make this tool more relevant to fishermen. The MLA also supports NERACOOS, which maintains part of the real-time oceanographic buoys in the Gulf of Maine and provides online tools to track changes in ocean temperatures. The MLA serves of the RED Board (Research, Education and Development Board or lobster license plate fund) and on the board of the Island Institute.
MLA Vessel Insurance Program
The MLA Board did a thorough review of the MLA Vessel Insurance Program in 2015. The MLA offers comprehensive hull and P&I coverage at competitive rates through Smithwick & Mariners. The program offers additional discounts if you have a completed a Drill Conductor course within the last five years. Vessels insured through the program generally are not required to have the vessel surveyed for renewals and also does not require layup period. Any researchers working aboard a vessel insured through the MLA program are automatically covered if the vessel carries P&I.
Information you can Trust
The MLA believes that information is power and the association is committed to keeping our members – and the industry as a whole – informed about the many meetings, regulations and issues that affect the lobster industry. MLA keeps every lobsterman, not just its members, on top of the news through Landings, published and distributed monthly by our sister organization, the Maine Lobstermen’s Community Alliance. Landings includes the MLA pages, which include a round-up of MLA’s work on behalf of the industry.
Each week, MLA members receive an email with a selection of state, regional and international news items relevant to the lobster industry, as well as an overview of lobster, bait and fuel prices along the coast. The MLA also maintains a Facebook page and Web site to convey information to the public and to members. And, as many of you know, MLA staff are always available to answer calls and emails from members during business hours.
In addition to ongoing communications, the MLA serves as a source of information for its members on complicated issues. MLA regularly publishes summaries of complex rulemaking and tracks monthly herring landings and closures. During the spring of 2015, MLA published a comprehensive summary of the new whales to provide a user-friendly resource for lobstermen.
MLA’s Board of Directors meets monthly, except for August. Members are always welcome to attend these meetings or to reach out to any of the Directors to find out what is going on. MLA’s Directors regularly discuss issues facing the lobster industry as a whole and review how the MLA can best represent the interest of its members.
It’s a sign of the value that the MLA holds in Maine’s lobstering communities that the organization is still in business after 61 years. It’s a further sign of the dedication of its board of directors and staff that so much can be accomplished in a single year with so few paid employees. I hope that you all take pride in your Association’s efforts on your behalf during this past year. See you at the Annual Meeting in March!