Changes could be coming to Maine's lobstering license system

PORTLAND, Maine – A series of changes are coming to the state’s lobster fishing licenses system that has divided lobstermen in an era of unprecedented hauls for the valuable creatures.

Some of the changes a panel of the Main Legislature signed off Wednesday are aimed at speeding up the process of getting fishermen off a waiting list that’s nearly 300 names long. Some of the fishermen on the list have been on the list for several years and aren’t able to benefit from recent years of heavy catches and high consumer demand for lobsters.

Young lobstermen automatically get a license when they finish an apprenticeship, and the proposal would raise the age to finish the apprenticeship from 18 to 20, or 23 for college students. It would also change the way old licenses are retired to try to get more traps out of the water so new fishermen can get started.

Some veteran lobstermen have pushed back against changes because they fear overexploiting lobster, the keystone of Maine’s marine economy and a driver of tourism. But younger lobstermen have said the changes benefit student fishermen without going far enough to get people off the waiting list.

“Maybe the best way to sum it up: They handed out licenses for one group and not for another,” said Ethan DeBery, a Phippsburg lobsterman who has been on the list for seven years. “It’s a token.”

The proposal comes as Maine’s lobster catches have topped 100 million pounds four years in a row after previously topping 90 million only once in recorded history. Demand has also boosted value, as Maine lobsters were worth a record of nearly $457 million at the docks in 2014. Prices to consumers, who typically pay $8 to $10 per pound for a lobster, have held relatively steady in recent years.

The Joint Standing Committee on Marine Resources unanimously approved the changes. The proposal will likely go before the full Legislature next month, members said.