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News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, February 2, 2023
The check is (almost) in the mail
DMR says funds to offset 2021 gear modifications should be sent by spring

by Jack Beaudoin

Active lobstermen are being advised to open mail from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in the coming months, because the envelopes that arrive just might contain a check for up to $3,500.

Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher told members of the Lobster Advisory Council at their January 18 meeting that the checks—meant to partially offset the expense of gear modifications required by 2021 North Atlantic right whale protections—will be issued by ASMFC and should arrive this spring.

“These are checks that will be distributed to a lot of harvesters,” Keliher said. “The Commission will be writing the checks, so make sure you don’t see the envelope and throw it away.”

In an email clarifying the timing, DMR spokesman Jeff Nicholas wrote, “We cannot predict the timing for that, but we will keep license holders informed as the approval process is initiated.”

The money comes from a $14 million appropriation approved by Congress last year—prior to the December passage of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2023, usually referred to as the Omnibus spending bill. The December bill delayed new protection rules for the endangered whales for six years and includes $55 million for research and development of new technologies for lobstering and for monitoring the whales.

Deirdre Gilbert, who directs DMR’s Bureau of Policy and Management, said that about $4 million of the money allocated would go toward newly required vessel tracking programs, while the other $10 million was dedicated to help harvesters with compliance, to be divided among states with active lobster fisheries. Maine got $6.8 million of the harvester funds, she said, and focused on those lobstermen likely to have incurred the greatest costs.

The required modifications included gear marking, which could aid scientists in identifying areas in which right whales were becoming entangled. They also included requirements for weakened lines or links, which enable right whales to break free if they become entangled.

The formula

Not all permit holders should expect a check. To determine eligibility, Gilbert said the department looked at the last three complete licensing years (2019, 2020 and 2021) and tallied 4,976 harvesters among all three classes of licensees.

Of that number, 1,023 were deemed “extremely latent” because there was no record that they fished at all. They are not eligible for a disbursement.

The department also ruled out payments to some 1,167 “minimal” harvesters—defined as those who made fewer than 50 trips over the three-year look-back period.

That means the remaining 46 percent of license-holders, who made more than 50 trips between 2019 and 2021, are eligible. Those fishing only in state waters will receive a base payment of $1,700, while federal permit holders—who had to make more gear changes to comply with the new rules—will be eligible for a $3,500 payment.

Ginny Olsen of Oceanville, who serves on the Lobster Advisory Council, said that the formula tried to take into account the wide variety of scenarios that make up Maine’s lobster fishery. Basing a payment purely on a poundage threshold, for example, might disadvantage fishermen in southern Maine, who might land fewer lobsters per trip than their counterparts Down East.

Down East Lobstermen’s Association Executive Director Sheila Dassatt noted her organization was consulted on the proposal and had expressed its approval.

“It should be done sooner than later, as the fishermen are already working on their gear and ropes,” Dassatt wrote in an email. “A lot of fishermen are having to go to the banks for loans, which puts the cart before the horse if they take too long to award the funds.”

Gilbert said the formula had not been finalized and faced scrutiny by several commissions and agencies. “Lots of eyes will review this,” she said. She also added that harvesters who fell into the minimal category could still qualify for a check if their landings exceeded the median of the eligible harvesters, which was 32,392 pounds.

Lobster Advisory Council member John Drouin of Cutler called the approach “reasonable and equitable.”

Olsen agreed. But when asked if the payments would offset the actual expense most harvesters incurred to comply with the gear modification rules, she said, “Not even close.”