Maine’s fishing industry in “emergency” mode
Bycatch bill dead; lawmakers scramble to save trade
By Chris Busby
Last week, the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee killed the bill commercial fishing advocates considered their best hope to keep the trade alive in Maine. Now the same lawmakers are scrambling to come up with alternative “emergency” measures in hopes of preventing the total collapse of the state’s groundfishing industry.
The bill (LD 170, “An Act To Permit the Landing of Lobsters Harvested by Methods other than Conventional Traps”) would have allowed vessel owners dragging for fish in federal waters to sell a limited number of lobsters inadvertently caught in their nets at Maine ports.
Lobsters caught by this method, known as “bycatch,” can be sold in Massachusetts, netting boat owners thousands of extra dollars per trip. Given the squeeze federal regulations are putting on fish harvesters throughout New England, the extra cash bycatch lobsters provide is luring an increasing number of them to ports in the Bay State.
Landings at the publicly owned Portland Fish Exchange have dropped precipitously in recent years. Meanwhile, shore-side businesses that support the fishing industry – like suppliers of ice and gear – have all but disappeared in Portland [see "Maine's fishing industry is fucked," Sept. 27, 2006].
The Exchange is hemorrhaging cash and laying off workers – earlier this year, the live auctioneer at the Exchange was replaced by a computer to save money. A recent report by economist Dr. Charles Lawton estimated that Maine lost 355 jobs and lost out on over $30 million in economic activity and tax revenue between 2000 and 2005 solely due to the bycatch issue.
Maine’s politically powerful, and much larger, lobster industry effectively crushed the legislation. Earlier this month, thousands showed up to voice opposition during a committee hearing on the bill – held in the Augusta Civic Center to accommodate the crowd.
Lobster industry advocates said the law would negatively affect the value of Maine lobster as a commercial “brand” by allowing lobsters damaged by deep-sea dragging to be sold as “Maine lobster.” Many also expressed concern about the practice’s potential impact on conservation efforts.
The bill’s timing didn’t help its cause, either. Early figures recently released by the state Department of Marine Resources indicate Maine’s lobster catch was down over 2 percent last year from 2005, and falling prices reduced the value of the annual haul from $315 million to $272.5 million – a 13.5 percent drop in value.
Rep. Anne Haskell, Democrat of Portland, sponsored LD 170. She remains hopeful other, less contentious measures will still be passed this session.
After unanimously voting against Haskell’s bill, all 13 members voted to convene what committee member Herb Adams called a “fast-acting subcommittee.” This subcommittee, which Adams chairs, has until March 28 to come up with a package of alternative proposals to assist the groundfishing industry.
Those ideas could include free ice for boats that unload at the Portland Fish Exchange, a fee rebate for fish buyers and sellers at the Exchange, and action on recommendations made three years ago by a task force convened by Gov. John Baldacci.
Among those recommendations is a call to eliminate the sales tax on diesel fuel for fishing vessels. Rep. Anne Rand – like Adams, a Democrat from Portland – has sponsored a separate bill to do that.
Adams said he voted against the bycatch bill due to concerns about lobster conservation and because the legislation did not guarantee boats would land their fish and lobsters in Maine even if it passed.
Adams said he’s “fairly confident” the subcommittee he chairs will “at least be able to make some thoughtful suggestions” to the full committee later this month. There’s unanimous agreement among the group that the groundfishing industry is “under incredible pressure in Maine,” said Adams. “It’s not too strong to say it’s bordering on collapse.”
Hank Soule, general manager of the Portland Fish Exchange, said he’s concerned whatever measures are proposed at this point “will be half-measures, at best” – insufficient to bring the industry back from the breaking point.
Haskell is also worried an emergency package of state incentives won’t be enough. “I don’t know if they’ll bring enough fishermen back to keep the Exchange alive,” she said. “If we don’t do something, we’ll lose this heritage industry.”