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From left, lobster dealer and council member Dana Rice, council member Ted Hoskins and Dan MacDonald, Zone C representative, participate at a Lobster Advisory Council meeting held in Augusta on August 16.
From left, Mainely Texas, owned by Darrell Williams and Uncles UFO, owned by Andy Gove, are part of Stonington’s working waterfront, which is busy handling a high number of lobster hauls despite concerns on dropping prices.
by Jessica Brophy
The Lobster Advisory Council voted unanimously to move the proposed $3 million marketing plan known as “Project Maine Lobster” forward at its meeting on Thursday, August 16, in Augusta.
The plan’s details will be decided by members of the Department of Marine Resources who will transform the proposal into potential legislation to be considered by state legislators this fall. The plan, discussed with fishermen in a series of meetings early this summer, includes promoting Maine lobster here in the U.S. and around the world.
Paul Jones of Harpswell asked why the details of marketing plan weren’t sent out in letters or surveys to license-holders the way the limited license entry questionnaire had been (see accompanying story on this page). Jones said he—and other lobstermen he knows—would not want lobstermen to pay big salaries for staffing for such a program.
Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Pat Keliher assured Jones that the project would not support a “big, heavy staff” but rather the majority of money would go into “generic” marketing—promoting Maine lobster as a commodity, like wild blueberries or California cheese.
LAC establishes subcommittee to hammer out potential changes
Lobster Advisory Council chairman Bob Baines began the August 16 discussion of possible rules changes by acknowledging “there have been some who have made it clear they don’t want to make changes, and some who do.” A list of potential rule changes discussed at the August 1 LAC Quality and Profitability Subcommittee meeting was distributed to meeting attendees. Potential changes listed include reducing the number of days lobstermen are allowed to fish, delayed tag issuance, rolling closures, gauge changes, proportional trap reductions and more.
“The LAC is responsible for moving this conversation forward,” said Baines. “Profitability is a dismal issue that’s not going away.” Baines said the LAC needed to “figure out what’s possible” and think about moving something through the legislature over the winter.
The DMR commissioner noted that the purpose of the conversation was not to discuss ways to reduce the catch, but to increase profitability. “How do we ensure a quality product at the right time?” Keliher said. “We want to maximize the profit of a public resource.”
Keliher said there are 5,998 license-holders in the state. Twenty-eight percent of those license holders don’t fish at all and another 10 percent land less than 1,000 pounds a year, he continued. On the other end of things, about 11 percent of the license-holders in the state land about 50 percent of the lobsters.
This leaves about 50 percent of the license-holders in the state “in the middle, right on the edge of where it’s profitable,” said Keliher. “Those are the breaks I keep in mind.”
Baines suggested the LAC create a subcommittee to hammer out “nuts and bolts” of potential changes that would then be “vetted” by the industry.
Steve Taylor, Zone G council member, said there wasn’t one fishermen that “doesn’t bitch about prices” and called the system broken.
Steve Train, who fishes in Casco Bay, said the price keeps going down and down each year. “That’s $200 million in profits not going back to coastal Maine,” said Train. “I don’t think we can keep doing business like this.”
Zone B council member Jon Carter asked why a “Lobster Commission” couldn’t be founded, like the Milk Commission, to address emergency situations. Carter would like such a commission to have the power to suspend fishing in circumstances like those seen in July of this year. “None of us will stay home unless we’re forced to,” said Carter. “We might stay home for a day, but as soon as one boat is out, we’re all out.”
Not everyone seemed keen on considering changes, especially several harvesters who traveled to Augusta for the meeting.
Jeff Putnam, Zone F council member, said last year the “profitability was there” and there’s no way to know what next year might hold. He said he was “nervous” about new restrictions.
Baines said the assumption was that the low price was “more than likely” to happen again.
Winter Harbor fisherman Billy Bob Faulkingham gestured to the list and said, “These are all bad ideas in my opinion.”
Dealer and LAC member Dana Rice of Birch Harbor said it was important to remember that it is only in the past few years that Maine’s landings have gone from 50 million pounds a year to 100 million pounds a year. “The more people who want your product, the more the price goes up,” said Rice.
Zone D council member Gerry Cushman said any effects from a marketing plan wouldn’t be felt for at least two years. “What if we have the same situation next year? We need solutions, we have got to prepare for the worst,” said Cushman. “I’d like to work less and make more, and I’d like this to be a profitable business for people moving forward.”
Baines said the subcommittee would “devise a plan to slow down landings,” in the hope of improving price. “They might be able to come up with something, they might not,” said Baines.
Baines asked for LAC volunteers to work on the subcommittee. Jon Carter, Elliot Thomas, Gerry Cushman and John Drouin volunteered for the committee. Baines said the committee would be invite-only. Audience member Billy Bob Faulkingham volunteered to be on the committee, but Baines said he only wanted people with “constructive ideas” to be on the committee. Faulkingham then asked if Baines would only bring on people who wanted to make changes.
Baines assured Faulkingham that any changes designed by the subcommittee would be put out to the industry for comment.
Other LAC news
Keliher offered a brief update on the “Canada situation”—including blockades of Canadian processors by New Brunswick fishermen. Trucks are moving, said Keliher, and the fishing season has opened. One of the reasons the trucks resumed traveling from Maine into Canada is the processors agreed to pay roughly $3.00 per pound for soft-shell lobsters and $3.50 for live market lobsters to Canadian fishermen, with $.25 per pound coming from the fishermen’s union.
A member of the audience asked if there was anything Maine could do in terms of “arm twisting” for better prices. Keliher explained that the U.S.’s anti-trust laws prohibit the kind of coordination Canadian fishermen have. Keliher said there wasn’t, “aside from creating a ‘super co-op’ with all the fishermen in the state.”
The next Lobster Advisory Council meeting has not been scheduled.