Steaming Ahead

On September 14, Maine Marine Patrol charged William Haas of Lamoine with fishing 44 traps over the limit, fishing untagged gear and fishing more traps per trawl than allowed. As a result of a new law put forward by the MLA during the past legislative session, Haas faces losing his license for at least three years, up to a maximum of 10 years. If he is found guilty, he may face further restrictions when he returns to lobster fishing. The DMR Commissioner also has the discretion to require a VMS (vessel monitoring system) on his boat and could reduce his trap allocation to as few as 300 traps so that he has to build his way back into the fishery.

No one wants to see a lobsterman lose his license. But even more so, no one wants to fish around a cheater. We are all taught as children the importance of playing fair. For those of us who play by the rules, you have an intuitive sense of what is right and what is wrong, and you get upset when you witness others who don’t. There are always a few out there who think the rules don’t apply to them. Seeing them break the rules over and over again — and profiting from it — is maddening. It makes you question a system that seemingly rewards the cheaters with illegal profits and leaves the honest lobstermen feeling powerless to change it.

That’s why the MLA put its heart and soul into LD 575 this spring. Maine is a big state so it’s no simple task for the MLA staff, board and members to maintain a prolonged, strong presence in Augusta. MLA’s board is comprised of active lobstermen so, unless the weather is bad, they are sacrificing a day of fishing to be in Augusta. Yet the MLA was there day after day, week after week, to keep the bill alive. LD 575 generated quite a bit of controversy because it was the subject of a misinformation campaign by the Maine Lobstering Union, which confused many lobstermen and legislators in Augusta. The MLA did all we could to ensure that members of the Marine Resources Committee and the full House and Senate members understood just how important the bill really was to the lobster industry.

LD 575 was signed into law on June 14 as emergency legislation, so it went into effect immediately. Contrary to the rhetoric spread by the Maine Lobstering Union through the halls of the State House, this new law does not give the DMR Commissioner unlimited power to snatch fishing licenses on a whim. Instead, it does what the MLA heard from lobstermen must be done — it makes sure that those who intentionally break the rules face serious consequences for their actions. It singles out the most egregious offenses — fishing over the trap limit, sunken trawls, more than 25 untagged traps, scrubbing egged lobsters, trap molesting or burning or destroying another lobsterman’s vessel — violations where there is no doubt the act was committed on purpose. It did not, in any way, change the current penalty system for other violations such as possession of a few short lobsters or lacking a few buoys lost to boat traffic.

By imposing minimum and maximum license suspension lengths for violations that hurt the lobster resource and other fishermen, the law goes after those who are intentionally abusing the system. It is designed to make a lobsterman think long and hard about whether running those extra trawls is worth the risk of losing his or her license for three years or more.

I’ve been with the MLA for over 17 years, and can safely say that I put more time into this bill than any other piece of legislation that I have worked on during my tenure with the MLA. To draft the bill, there were many meetings and discussions with the MLA Board and surveys sent to lobstermen to get their opinions on which violations needed stronger penalties and what those penalties should be.

Once the bill was in the Legislature, MLA directors and members joined me in Augusta day after day to attend the public hearing and work sessions, talk to DMR staff, Marine Resources Committee members, legislators and, in the end, to lobstermen who showed up in Augusta because the Maine Lobstering Union told them that the bill would in some way harm them. The Maine Lobstering Union, unfortunately, had a poor understanding of what the bill did and so mounted a full court press based on concerns that were not real. The MLA also worked tirelessly to make provisions of the bill clear to those who showed up to fight it. We were able to explain the facts and dispel the reams of nonsense being passed as facts among lobstermen. And Commissioner Keliher did an excellent job listening to their concerns and, in the end, helping them to accurately understand this bill.

The MLA does not want to see honest lobstermen punished for honest mistakes or lose a license without due process. Why would it? The MLA is made up of lobstermen. Its role is to listen to its members. We understand state, regional and federal lobster management systems and with that knowledge we work to keep this industry strong.

Some people think of the MLA as some sort of Goliath, with its own agenda and unlimited resources to push that agenda. Nothing could be further from the truth. The MLA is you, independent lobstermen who make up the state’s robust lobster industry. Our board is comprised of 21 lobstermen who give up fishing days and travel to meetings and public hearings on their own dime. The MLA has a tiny staff who take on a mountain of issues that are constantly thrown at the industry. MLA’s policies and priorities are set by the board — active, commercial lobstermen who live and lobster from harbors along the coast. The board decides what it wants to see happen; my job is to implement those goals on behalf of the MLA.

I am very proud of our efforts to get a new penalty system on the books for Maine’s lobster industry and I know the MLA Board is very proud, too. LD 575 is a game changer — all lobstermen must play fair or face the consequences. Thanks to all of you who continue to support the MLA and our work to keep our industry strong!

As always, stay safe on the water.