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by Jessica Brophy
Earlier this year, the state commissioned a study of Maine’s limited-entry lobster license system for the legislature to consider in January 2013.
The limited-entry system was created a decade ago, and in most zones there are long lists of people who have completed their apprenticeships and are waiting for a license.
Questions have been raised about whether the limited-entry license system works, as well as the problem of some license holders hanging on to their licenses and not fishing, for various reasons.
The Gulf of Maine Research Institute is conducting the study, which includes surveys mailed to every license-holder, apprentice and those on the wait list for a license. Survey responses are due by September 7. A series of “public listening sessions” are being held up and down the coast. The first of two sessions on Deer Isle was held on Wednesday, August 15, at 10 a.m. A second session will be held on Tuesday, August 28, at 6 p.m. in the high school cafeteria.
GMRI will compile all the results gathered from the survey and give a report to the legislature, due October 15, outlining possible changes. The Department of Marine Resources will then seek public input on the various options before making a recommendation to the legislature.
How lobster licensing works now
Different parts of the coast are divided up by fishing zones, from Zone A near the Canadian border southwest to Schoodic Point, to Zone G from Cape Elizabeth south to the New Hampshire border. Zone C includes Deer Isle, Stonington, Vinalhaven, North Haven, Isle au Haut and the waters along the mainland from Surry’s Newbury Neck to Brooksville’s Cape Rosier.
Each zone has its own rules about licensing. All zones must have an apprenticeship program which controls who is qualified to be granted a license. All of the zones except for Zone C have exit-entry ratios as well, which means that new lobster licenses are issued on the basis of how many lobster trap tags are not renewed. In Zones B, D, E, F and G, the ratio is 1:5, where one new license is granted for every 4,000 tags that are not renewed.
In Zone C, lobstermen may apply for a license after completing the apprenticeship without waiting. In the other zones, the lobsterman’s name is added to a waiting list until a license is available.
According to the DMR’s “Request for Proposals” for the limited-entry study, the number of licenses in Zone C has declined 15 percent from its peak in 2000, despite being an “open zone.”
According to a Department of Marine Resources memo released on February 1, 2012, only seven licenses were awarded in 2011 in the state based on retired tags in limited-entry zones. (More than 40 licenses were granted as student licenses or through other waivers.) In Zone C, 25 new licenses were granted in 2011, including three student licenses, according to the DMR.
Several of the zones have more than 50 people on the waiting list, according to the memo, some of whom have been waiting since 2004 for a license. According to the department’s RFP, if the current rate of exit continues, “The current wait list for the last person on the Zone A list would be over 20 years, and the wait for the last person on the B and D lists would be over 50 years.”
Discussion at the August 15 meeting
The meeting was sparsely attended, which was not surprising, said Alexa Dayton, GMRI Training and Outreach Community Program Manager. Dayton acknowledged the beautiful weather and a 10 a.m. meeting time did not encourage lobstermen to attend.
Dayton explained the project to the 10 people present. “We’re interested in what changes would be accepted,” said Dayton. Issues on the table include transferability (the ability to sell or pass on a license), adjusting the ratio to allow more licenses, transitioning some zones to be open like Zone C and how to discourage “latent” license-holders (those who do not actively fish on their license). Dayton said the GMRI is researching different licensing models around the world to see what works and doesn’t work, and will present the legislature with “three or four options with pros and cons for each option.”
Scott Beede of Aurora has been on the Zone B wait list since 2010, and made the trip to Deer Isle to share what he sees as the problems in several of the zones with long wait lists.
“There are a lot of old timers hanging on to it,” said Beede of lobster licenses. “They want to sell it or pass it on.” Beede said many lobstermen feel their license could help fund retirement. The system as it stands now does not allow for the sale of lobster licenses.
Beede advocated “opening” Zone B and other limited-entry zones and removing the restrictions on licenses. Even if licenses were granted to everyone on the wait list and those in the apprentice program, “only part of them is going to make it. The current system is designed for those already in the fishery.”
Ginnie Olsen of Stonington said she did not want to see lobster licenses for sale. “I’m worried that if we add a dollar sign, we’ll have an Alaskan fishery,” she said. “It will be too expensive for anyone to get into.”
Brian Tripp of Sedgwick, one of two Zone C lobstermen present, said he just got his license after six years as an apprentice. “I couldn’t support my family as a sternman,” he said. “Seeing it from the outside, I would have paid anything to get a license.” Tripp said now he is glad he could not have taken out a big loan for a license on top of all the other startup costs. He said he’s also glad for the graduated trap tag system, which allows new license-holders to start fishing with 400 traps, adding 100 traps each year up to the maximum of 800.
The idea of “bloodline fishery,” or the idea that licenses could be “handed down” to members of the family brought up concerns of fairness, as it favors families who are already in the fishing business.
Dayton asked about the merits of having an individual quota with transferability—the idea that each license has with it the ability to land a certain amount of lobster, but with the ability to transfer unused portions of a quota.
Carla Guenther, Fisheries, Science and Leadership Advisor at Penobscot East Resource Center, said that the fluctuating distribution of lobster would make it difficult to shift quota to where it would be needed without involving money and selling the quota.
Part of the problem with changing the way lobster licenses are granted is that “there is no trust in the system,” said Olsen.
Dick Dunham, who fishes out of Sunshine, agreed. “You don’t know what the rules are going to be down the line, so you feel like you can’t invest,” said Dunham.
Guenther and Holly Eaton, Community Liaison at Penobscot East, both argued a positive change for lobster licensing would be to raise the age for the “under 18” apprenticeship requirements to 21 or 22. Currently, minors who complete the apprenticeship requirement by the age of 18 can get a license without being waitlisted.
“You’re asking 15 and 16 year olds to choose a career without any backup,” said Eaton, who added that raising the age would allow young people to go for the lobster license, but with more time to also pursue other education, training or career options.
Other details on the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the study can be found at gmri.org/lobster. A meeting to gather input on the license system will be held by GMRI on Tuesday, August 28 at 6 p.m. in the Deer Isle-Stonington high school cafeteria.