News Feature

Originally published in The Weekly Packet, January 24, 2013
Rep. Kumiega outlines approach as chair of Marine Resources Committee

Penobscot Bay Press file photo

by Jessica Brophy

Second-term Maine State Representative Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle) was recently appointed chairman of the Marine Resources Committee, which oversees policy relating to the Department of Marine Resources and the state’s commercial fisheries.

Kumiega said the committee’s primary role is to listen to bills presented related to the fisheries and make sense of them, asking intelligent questions and working toward a final bill. The DMR often drafts bills, with the help of the committee, and then the committee will make further recommendations.

This legislative session looks to be a busy one, as the DMR is already working on several bills to bring forward.

These include proposed changes to the lobster licensing system, a marketing plan for Maine lobster and potential shut-down or restriction powers for the DMR in times of economic crisis in the lobster industry (such as the backlog of product and low boat price for lobster in summer of 2012).

While these are some of the bigger, more pressing issues, Kumiega said he has a bill related to sea cucumber harvesting, and there is likely to be work done on improving sustainability for the shrimp industry as well. The open period for bill suggestion ends in a few weeks, and then Kumiega will have a better understanding of what is on the agenda for the upcoming legislative session.

He has heard, however, that there will be a bill to allow the landing of lobster caught while dragging for other species in Area 3 (federal waters). Currently, Maine law does not allow lobster to be landed this way, and many draggers and trawlers unload in other states—primarily Massachusetts—because that state does allow landings of lobsters from dragging. Such a bill would allow boats to return to selling at Portland, said Kumiega. However, Portland Harbor is getting crowded with cruise ships, pleasure craft and other commerce as well as shorefront development, and Kumiega is unsure whether boats would return to sell in Portland.

In terms of the marketing plan, Kumiega thinks the recent data on landings and values shows its need. “It’s a pretty grim picture,” said Kumiega of the 2012 landings data, which shows landings up nearly 20 million pounds to a total of 123 million pounds. The worth of those landings, however, dropped by nearly

$4 million. The problem, said Kumiega, is that lobstermen cannot continue to work that much harder for less. The marketing plan, which would promote Maine lobster, is being presented as a five-year plan with a “sunset” or automatic repeal clause.

“We’ll know if it’s working,” said Kumiega.

Kumiega said there are still some kinks that need to be worked out to the DMR’s potential “emergency measures” plan. Kumiega has attended a few of the hearings already, and said as DMR Commissioner Pat Keliher described the short-term move to a three-day-per-week fishing schedule with an afternoon curfew, fishermen were already telling him how they would get around it.

“That’s what they do, fish,” said Kumiega.

Kumiega said the emergency measure is “something I hope we don’t have to use,” but he thinks it might be worth trying to see if product landings can be slowed and the boat price brought up during a crisis. “If we try it once and it doesn’t work, we’ll have to find something else,” said Kumiega. One of the tricky parts will be establishing the “trigger” mechanism, or defining what constitutes an economic emergency in the lobster industry.

The industry has already taken note of what happened last year and is building bigger and better capacity for transport and storage, dealers and lobstermen alike, said Kumiega. “If we come out of this with better handling, that will make a difference in time,” he said, though he admits most fishermen are concerned with how much of that difference will end up in the pockets of fishermen.

When it comes to lobster licenses, Kumiega thinks it’s a good time to incorporate changes. “The wait lists are so long,” said Kumiega. Zone C, which includes Stonington, Deer Isle, Blue Hill, Brooklin, Surry, Sedgwick and Brooksville, has an open licensing system, where anyone who completes the apprenticeship program can get a license. Other zones have waiting lists that require a certain number of trap tags (associated with licenses) to be retired.

Kumiega thinks the DMR’s proposed new three-tier licensing system offers a good alternative, where new entrants or those with few landings historically can fish a reduced number of traps, or more based on landings, and be able to move up based on retiring licenses (so someone at the second tier with 400 traps could move up to the full allotment of 800 traps if another fishermen with 800 traps retires).

It may also be the time to think about instituting lowered trap limits for those just entering the fishery. “There’s going to be a lot of turnover in the industry in 15 or 20 years,” said Kumiega. “The average fisherman is in his 50s. Having new entrants start with fewer means that in 15 or 20 years we’ll have everyone fishing at the lower level.”

Kumiega said his other priority, as chairman of the Marine Resources Committee, is to start figuring out how to “let people back into the closed fisheries.”