I am so excited that summer is finally here! It has been a very long and busy winter for the MLA. MLA’s staff and many board members spent quite a bit of time in Augusta pushing for major changes to our lobster violations enforcement structure and fighting against increases in lobster license fees.
Since its beginning, the MLA has represented lobstermen in Augusta. We typically monitor and track bills related to lobstering. The MLA board takes positions on bills that affect the fishery as a whole and advocates for policy that is in the long-term interest of the lobster industry. The MLA doesn’t weigh in on bills that are local in nature and do not affect the entire industry.
The majority of lobster-related bills that we see in Augusta seek to change our existing management structure to give an existing group an advantage over others. Examples include allowing the sale or transfer of licenses, changes to the zone council system or weakening the entry system. Often the MLA fights for the status quo so that we don’t undermine our conservation and management system. But there are also times when the board realizes that we must rethink an existing policy and advocate for new solutions.
The most important work happens when some of the fishery’s cornerstone policies are debated or bills are introduced that could have a major impact on the future of the industry. For example, MLA has fought for many years to keep dragger-caught lobster from being landed in Maine. In 2007, MLA led the charge to defeat LD 170; in 2013 we did the same to defeat LD 1097. Keeping draggers from landing lobster in Maine is part of the fabric of the lobster industry and part of the fabric of the MLA. The MLA remains committed to doing everything within our power to keep this from happening.
Fighting for a sustainable future for Maine’s commercial lobstermen is what we do, and what the MLA has done for more than 60 years. What was very different about being in Augusta this year, however, is the amount of time the MLA spent to keep the enforcement bill alive. It was not because it was a poorly written bill or because we failed to do proper outreach and get feedback from the industry. Instead, it was because the lawyer from the Maine Lobstering Union did not like the bill and championed a campaign of misinformation regarding the bill to lobstermen.
By way of background, the MLA worked with Senator Langley to put forward LD 575, An Act to Improve the Enforcement of Maine’s Lobster Laws. This bill grew out of many months of work by the MLA board as it debated a myriad of enforcement concerns raised by lobstermen. The board discussed potential solutions at length, and then conducted a survey of MLA members to get feedback. This feedback served to help the MLA board refine its priorities and was followed with an online survey of all lobstermen in the state to gauge their concern about these issues. The survey results were presented to a large audience at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum and in Landings, which is mailed to every license holder. During all these efforts, the MLA received strong support for the bill. Everyone agreed that the lobster fishery had reached a point where enforcement had become “a joke” and that the issue of cheating needed to be addressed.
Lobstermen raised many concerns with the MLA on how the lobster industry is changing. However, the MLA’s survey showed that there was not clear support to address issues such as abuse of replacement tags, the increase in night hauling, or the number of people working on boats with a Class III license.
The MLA chose to tackle the issue that had overwhelming support among lobstermen, namely, that DMR enforcement lacks the ability to catch offenders and that the penalty structure for those who are caught is too weak and ineffective. For the most egregious and intentional violations, the industry told the MLA that there should be a strict minimum penalty to deter lobstermen from cheating in the first place. For other violations where there is a high probability that it could be a mistake, existing penalties should be left in place.
And that is exactly what the MLA put forward. The MLA’s bill, LD 575, proposed to set minimum and maximum penalties for a series of lobster violations. The MLA’s industry-wide survey results were included in our testimony in March, clearly demonstrating that stiff minimum penalties were supported by the industry. The MLA also supported DMR’s bill, LD 1379, which sought to give the DMR the authority to conduct covert investigations of those suspected of fishing over the trap limit and fishing sunken trawls. The MLA was adamant that this only be allowed if there is probable cause that a crime is being committed and that a third party outside of DMR must sign off on the warrant. To do this, the Marine Resources Committee made these types of lobster violations criminal offenses. This will allow Marine Patrol to show probable cause and then get a warrant from a judge to conduct a covert investigation. Throughout the process, the MLA watched carefully to ensure that lobstermen would be treated fairly.
These two bills were combined into a single bill, and moved forward as LD 575. This created a two-fold strategy: getting DMR the enforcement tools it needs and stiffening the penalty structure for blatant, intentional lobster offenses. Violations that could be accidental (shorts, v-notches, etc.) were left the same.
The Maine Lobstering Union led aggressive and unremitting opposition to this bill while the MLA argued strenuously for these enforcement changes. Why? Because MLA members have been unequivocal in their concern that cheaters are reaping huge financial gains and jeopardizing our long-standing culture of stewardship. Throughout the unending opposition to the bill, the MLA kept an open mind focused on the goal of ensuring that these enforcement changes become law. After all, that is what the industry had asked for. The MLA met with the Union’s lawyer, an opposing legislator and DMR to address any substantive issues within the bill. An outcome of this process was creating a definition for a sunken trawl.
While the MLA remained open to addressing substantive issues, the goal post continued to move. Defining sunken trawl was not enough. The Union’s lawyer then tried to engineer an effort to undermine the administrative suspension system. This program was created six years ago with strong industry support as a way to finally put some teeth into the penalty system. It was modeled after fisheries license suspension processes in other New England states; it is also the way that driver’s licenses are suspended for OUIs. Violators who were often given mere slaps on the wrist in the court system faced the prospect of a punishment that fits the crime — losing their licenses.
To stir up feelings about the administrative suspension system, Union representatives mounted a campaign of misinformation about what LD 575 did and did not do. I personally spoke with many lobstermen who came to Augusta on behalf of the Union to fight against LD 575. They made the long drive because they feared they could lose their license for ten years if they lost a buoy on a trawl due to boat traffic or were caught with a few short lobsters. They thought that the DMR Commissioner could just take their license and they could not get it back. None of this was true.
On the day that the Senate was voting on the bill, the Union threatened to have Senator Jackson offer an amendment on the floor that very likely would have killed LD 575. They brought more than 30 lobstermen to the State House to argue against LD 575 even though none of the concerns they spoke of were even part of the bill. So the Commissioner gathered all of the Union and MLA members together in one room and talked through the history of both LD 1379 and LD 575. He explained clearly what the final LD 575 did and did not do. Lobstermen asked many questions and, in the end, most realized that the majority of their fears were unfounded. Just before the Senate voted on the bill, the Union withdrew its opposition and the Senate passed the bill under the hammer.
Despite strong opposition in the House from Rep. Paula Sutton, who worked closely with the Union’s lawyer, LD 575 was strongly supported by Representatives Hawke, Kumiega, Tuell, Alley and Parry, all whom offered compelling testimony on the floor. This is what Representative Tuell said:
“I and my colleagues on Marine Resources voted this bill out of committee with a very strong ‘ought to pass’ as an amended report. Only one member voted against it. We worked the bill tirelessly in a good faith effort to address everyone’s concerns, and we gave people inside the industry and out every opportunity to weigh in. The long and short of it is that the Department of Marine Resources has bent over backwards to work with anyone who wants to work on this bill, and I say that as one who has been critical of the Administration’s relationship with the Legislature, and one who is very dubious of its broad claims of executive oversight. I bring that up because the main argument against this bill is that it gives the Commissioner of Marine Resources too much power to administratively suspend fishing licenses. As my grandmother was fond of saying, ‘Bull, and cow to go with it.’ Sorry, but a fisherman from down home told me in the hall yesterday to be blunt, so I’m being blunt. The excuses, the rationalization, the moral relativity around why we should not hold bad people accountable for some of the most wicked, vile things you can do on the water, is just flat out wrong, and I am not having any of it. And on top of all of that, it’s just not true.”
The House voted in favor of the bill 130 to 16! The bill became law when it was signed by Governor LePage on June 14.
This experience gave me a new and deeper appreciation of the wisdom that the MLA’s 63-year history brings to the fray. As lobster industry groups such as the Maine Lobstering Union become more active, I realize that a strong and active MLA is more important than ever. The MLA is a grassroots organization. The MLA’s policy decisions are made by the Board, informed by our members from throughout the coast, and are based on a thorough and accurate understanding of the issues.
The struggle over LD 575 made me realize how strongly the MLA’s long history guides the organization’s actions today. The MLA has been there for every debate that lobstermen have been part of since 1954. We know where we’ve been and have a strong vision for where we are going. While other industry groups struggle to understand the far-reaching implications of today’s issues, the MLA effectively continues to do what it has done for so long: advocate at every level of government for the long-term well-being of the lobster resource and our fishing communities.
Whether it is overhauling our enforcement laws, stopping possible closures due to deep sea coral, saying “No” to new whale rules or ensuring lobstermen have access to fresh bait during the peak fishing season, the MLA is there. I can assure you that in most venues the MLA is the only group at the table.
It doesn’t matter what year it is. The MLA continues to show up, to speak out and to argue with those who would damage the proud traditions which have led to Maine’s thriving lobster industry. Things that don’t work don’t last, and the MLA is not going anywhere! Have no doubts — the MLA has your back.
As always, stay safe on the water.