AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Members of the next generation of Maine lobster fishermen say they fear they will never get a license to fish for the valuable critters, but some longstanding lobstermen fear changing the rules could result in overfishing.
A key Maine legislative panel held a public hearing on Wednesday on changes designed to streamline the process of obtaining one of about 5,800 lobstering licenses in the state. The call for changes comes as Maine lobsters have grown in value in recent years, and prices have held steady for consumers as lobstermen's catches have boomed, resulting in heavy supply.
A vote could come as early as Feb. 17.
There are nearly 300 people on the waiting list for a license, and some have been on the list for more than a decade. Ethan DeBery, a Phippsburg lobsterman who completed an apprenticeship and has been on the list for seven years, said the current system isn't fair.
"I wake up every morning and I look at my late father's trap pile in the yard," DeBery said. "If you're not going to get off the list until you're 50, there's no point in even getting a boat. That's not real entry."
Rep. Walter Kumiega, D-Deer Isle, has proposed the changes, which include the creation of a new class of license that would be limited to 300 traps instead of the usual 800. Another piece of the proposal would require the state's lobster fishing zones to grant new licenses based on the number of retired licenses instead of the number of retired traps. The zones currently use a mix of those two methods.
The proposed changes received pushback from some veteran lobstermen who said they fear high catches of recent years won't last forever. Maine lobstermen have caught more than 100 million pounds of lobstermen every year since 2011. Last decade the catch was typically between 50 million and 75 million pounds.
"I feel bad for the people that are on the waiting list, but I can't go be a plumber tomorrow. I can't go elver fishing or scallop fishing," said David Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. "I think we've done it right."
Maine lobstermen must first complete an apprenticeship, after which they are placed on the waiting list. Students up to age 18 automatically get a license when they finish an apprenticeship, and Kumiega's bill would raise that age to 23.
Aja Quintal, a 16-year-old Deer Isle lobsterwoman, said the age cap is difficult to reach while juggling summer jobs and activities.
"Extending this age limit will allow fresh young fishermen into the industry who might otherwise not have the opportunity," Quintal said.