Lobstermen warily eye Maine proposal to change licensing

FILE - In this Aug. 17, 2015, file photo, a lobster boat heads out to sea at sunrise, off Kennebunkport, Maine. Some of the state's lobstermen are staying out on the water later in the year because of the warm winter weather. The result is that lobster is easy to come by at the market. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Maine’s lobstermen, a skeptical and single-minded lot for centuries, are scrutinizing a proposed law designed to streamline the process of obtaining a coveted lobster fishing license.

Lobsters are the cornerstone of Maine’s marine economy, and the state is in the midst of a multiyear boom in catch and value — $456.9 million in 2014 shattered all previous records. There is also a backlog of nearly 300 people on the waiting list for a license, and some of the fishermen have been on the list for more than a decade, years after completing a required apprenticeship.

Rep. Walter Kumiega, D-Deer Isle, has proposed a battery of changes to the system. The tweaks include the creation of a new class of license that would be limited to 300 traps instead of the typical 800. Kumiega’s bill would also alter the rules that govern the retirement of lobster licenses and how retirements affect the distribution of new licenses.

Rep. Robert Alley, D-Beals, a longtime lobsterman, said changes will prevent qualified new lobstermen from being sidelined for years. He and other members of a key marine resources committee will host a public hearing on the proposal on Feb. 10 that many expect to be lively.

“I thought it was time that we got to work and put some of them out there,” Alley said, adding there are about 5,700 licensed lobstermen in the state, not all of whom are active.

David Cousens, the president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said changes risk overexploiting lobsters — which regulators and lawmakers said is exactly what they want to avoid. He acknowledged that the current licensing system results in long wait times for new lobstermen, but it also protects the lobsters from becoming overfished.

“Before we go to the Legislature and start tinkering with the entire system, we need to know what we’re talking about,” Cousens said.

Kumiega said the new licensing program would not allow a glut of new lobstermen to jump in the water at once, which is a key concern of veterans in the industry. Jeff Nichols, a spokesman for the state Department of Marine Resources, said the state wants to increase the predictability of how long it will take to get off the waiting list, but not increase the total effort in the fishery.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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