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News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, December 20, 2012
Penobscot East developing fishery license plan

by Rich Hewitt

Penobscot East Resource Center is developing a proposal for a new, flexible type of commercial fishing license designed to ease access limitations into existing and future fisheries.

Still in the early stages of development, the idea for the new type of license grew out of a series of meetings PERC has held during the past year with fishermen from around the state and fisheries specialists from all over North America.

One of the key issues that arose from those sessions was the concern of fishermen over the limited access to Maine’s fisheries. It is an issue for all of the state’s fisheries, highlighted by the lobster industry which accounts for about 90 percent of Maine’s landings. Most of the lobster zones in the state are closed—only Zone C has remained open.

Because of the boom in lobsters in recent years, a lot of people want to get into that fishery, but they are shut out. An apprenticeship program and a student license program help to prepare would-be fishermen for the lobster industry, but they are often stuck at the back of the boat on a wait list. The wait for an open license can be a long one, often decades long, according to Carla Guenther, PERC’s science and leadership advisor.

“Lobstermen like the apprenticeship, they hate the wait list,” she said.

The state already is considering options to increase access to lobster licenses, including a recent recommendation from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. But PERC has taken a different tack, and is looking at a way to redesign the licensing system so that a single license would apply to all fisheries.

Although Guenther said there is still a lot of work to be done on the details of the plan, the basic proposal is for a general commercial fishing license that would give fishermen the opportunity to earn endorsements for individual fisheries. Fishermen would have to meet certain requirements to obtain the general commercial fishing license. They would then have to earn additional stewardship credits in order to obtain an endorsement for individual fisheries.

This would give fishermen the opportunity to build a business around a portfolio of different species. Guenther said it also provides them and the state with the flexibility to adapt those general licenses to new fisheries that might develop in the future.

One of the details that will need to be worked out, Guenther said, is how fishermen will be able to earn those stewardship credits. It’s likely, she said, that there would be multiple paths toward the credits, using a scallop endorsement as an example. Safety has been a major concern expressed by fishermen during the PERC meetings this year and they have suggested that there might be some sort of safety training or requirement for a scallop endorsement.

“You can achieve that in many different ways,” Guenther said. “You can take a course, or, if you have experience, you can show that you know how to run the gear.”

She added that they may look at developing apprenticeship programs for each of the fisheries.

There has been some concern voiced about the number of traps allowed under existing licenses and the impact that could have on the fishery if fishermen chose to fish all the traps they were allowed. But, according to Guenther, the PERC plan for a new type of license does not include trap limits at this point.

“We haven’t talked about that,” Guenther said. “It’s not part of this proposal; it could be, but it’s not right now.”

Developing the details of the license will require the advice and suggestions of various stakeholders. At a workshop in September with fishery representatives from around North America, PERC heard a warning to be cautious about creating a transferrable license in the state. Although the idea of being able to buy and sell fishing licenses is popular in some parts of the state, Guenther said fishermen in areas where it has been accepted warned that it does not work.

“The message was loud and clear, ‘do not go to transferability,’” she said. “They told us that it has resulted in repercussions that are seemingly irreversible.”

Under transferability, Guenther said, licenses can sell for as much as a million dollars, which becomes a way of limiting access to a fishery. In Connecticut, where transferring licenses is allowed, it effectively blocked entry to the lobster fishery, she said.

“The other fisheries responded in kind, and the lobstermen were boxed out of every other fishery,” she said. When the lobster fishery collapsed in Connecticut, the result of disease, those fishermen had no other way to fish.

Fishermen at the September workshop also advised Maine to keep its requirement for the owner/operator of the boat and the business to be on the boat. The requirement has helped to keep the fishery in the hands of small, family businesses and it also helps in enforcement. But, Guenther said, it also helps to protect the fishery and the environment.

“It’s important to have the person who’s making the fishing decisions and the business decisions out on the water observing what’s going on in the environment and with the resource,” she said.

There are still many details to be worked out before this idea for a new license can actually become a proposal for state legislators. That process will require ideas from different contingencies in Maine, particularly the fishermen. Efforts to meet with fishermen this fall to follow-up on the workshop and to talk about the license model have been plagued by scheduling problems due to the holidays, the weather and the start of the scallop season.

Guenter said it likely will be next spring before PERC can put together a new schedule of meetings to discuss the idea.