Lobster Law Enforcement Takes Center Stage

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) has made it possible for lobstermen in this state to say with confidence that “crime does not pay.” L.D. 575 An Act to Improve Enforcement of Maine’s Lobster Laws is anticipated to be passed by the Maine Legislature in June. It will likely have an emergency preamble, which would go into effect upon the Governor’s signing so its provisions will be in place for this summer’s fishing season. The bill will make penalties for breaking marine resources laws related to lobstering harsher for those who choose to do so. “The only ones who would be against this law are the crooks,” said David Cousens, president of the MLA.
In 2016, the MLA Board of Directors decided to concentrate on the issue of cheating. Lobster landings in the state were once again sky-high; the price at the dock had also remained robust. Good money could be made by those who skirted the law, particularly in offshore waters, and that, in the eyes of Board members, was not right.
In December 2016, the MLA Board sent out an e-mail survey asking MLA members what they thought the major enforcement issues were in the lobster fishery. With those results in hand, Board members discussed the results with DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher and Bureau of Marine Patrol Chief Jon Cornish.
With that feedback in hand, the Board then sent a modified email survey to all licensed lobstermen, not just MLA members, in the state. The survey explored the concept of setting “minimum penalties” for a variety of offenses. Minimum penalties could range from none, to a monetary fine, all the way up to a permanent license suspension. The concept behind a minimum penalty would be to let a lobsterman know what the consequences would be if he or she broke a law. If it is severe enough, this could deter many from breaking the law in the first place.
The survey also asked lobstermen about their concerns with night hauling, number of crew aboard a vessel, and giving DMR the authority to suspend licenses of those found guilty of burning or destroying other lobstermen’s vessels. Four hundred lobstermen responded. The majority wanted to see stiffer penalties with a goal of making it not worthwhile to break the law.
“While the majority of Maine lobstermen are hardworking and honest individuals, there are a few bad apples,” said Patrice McCarron, MLA executive director. “Lobstermen are saying loudly and clearly that lobster laws need to be enforced. They are really concerned over DMR’s inability to catch those who violate the trap limit. I have heard from many that if this problem is not remedied, more lobstermen will reach a point of deep frustration and be tempted to set illegal traps themselves.”
An amended L.D. 575 was endorsed by the Joint Committee on Marine Resources, 11-1. The amended bill reflects the provisions of both L.D. 575 put forward by the MLA and L.D. 1379 put forward by DMR. If adopted, the new law will require the DMR Commissioner to give longer license suspensions for lobstermen who violate the laws on the first offense. Certain infractions, such as setting fire to, sinking, or damaging a vessel used for lobstering, are now grounds for permanent revocation of a lobster license. As proposed originally in L.D. 1379, most lobster violations that are currently civil offenses will become criminal acts. Those violations deemed criminal acts, such as trap molesting and fishing more than 25 untagged traps, will allow DMR to seek a warrant from a judge to place surveillance equipment on a vessel without notifying the lobsterman when it has “probable cause.”
If this new law takes effect, violators caught fishing more than the legal limit of 800 traps or fishing sunken trawls would face a minimum three-year suspension rather than one year and could possibly lose their license for up to 10 years. Scrubbing egg-bearing lobsters would result in a minimum four-year license suspension with the possibility of permanent revocation, and molesting other fishermen’s traps could result in a suspension from two to six years. The current maximum for molesting gear is three years. The proposed changes would also require the department to permanently revoke a lobsterman’s license for a second offense of exceeding trap limits or fishing sunken trawls. Lobstermen who have their license suspended for certain violations will re-enter the lobster fishery similar to a new entrant, limited to 300 traps and then building up by 100 traps per year after that. The Department may also require a lobsterman coming back in after a license suspension to have a vessel monitoring system aboard the vessel for an amount of time up to the length of their license suspension.
“This has been a major effort on the part of the MLA,” said Cousens. “We’ve had great support for doing this. Lobstermen want to see a level playing field. If you stand to lose your license for six years or have a tracker on your boat, that should be enough to stop the bullshit.”