AUGUSTA — Maine lawmakers moved closer Wednesday to approving a bill designed to help state groundfishermen increase their catch in federal waters.

The bill, L.D. 939, sponsored by Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, would authorize a $3.5 million bond targeted to help fishermen land more fish by subsidizing the purchase of permits in the Groundfish Permit Bank. The proposal is one of two remaining this session designed to bolster the state’s dwindling groundfish industry. It has received unanimous support in the House and Senate.

If enacted the bond requires approval of Maine voters.

The state currently participates in the Groundfish Permit Bank. L.D. 939 would allow fishermen to purchase additional permits. Supporters say the bill would assist a groundfish industry that has experienced a sharp decline amid decreased federal catch quotas. Federal regulations are expected to lead to an approximately 70 percent decrease in quotas for cod and haddock and an estimated 50 percent decrease in sole and yellowtail flounder.

The Maine groundfish fleet comprised about 350 boats during the 1990s. There were about 70 boats in 2012. The catch has shrunk over the same period, from 44.8 million pounds worth $33 million during the 1990s to 6.6 million pounds worth $6.2 million in 2009.

Advocates of L.D. 939 say the ability to buy more permits will blunt the impact of decreased catch quotas.

A separate proposal, L.D. 1549, sponsored by Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, will remove state-assessed penalties for Maine-based groundfishing trawlers that catch lobsters in federally regulated waters.

The proposal is designed to ensure that the state’s groundfishing fleet can keep the lobsters that come up in trawl nets and sell them in states that allow such lobsters to be landed.

Critics of the bill fear that it will lead to further loosening of restrictions on sales of incidentally caught lobsters, a practice the lobster industry fiercely opposes because of concerns about its impact on the state’s most valuable fishery.

The Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee endorsed an amended version of the bill, 7-6. The bill would lift the penalty for three years before triggering a legislative review. It has yet to come up for a preliminary vote in the Senate.

Maine now prohibits sales of lobster bycatch, as does Canada. The state also penalizes commercial vessels licensed in Maine for landing or storing lobsters in Area 3, a federally regulated zone that extends from Maine to the mid-Atlantic states and begins about 40 miles off the Maine coast. The penalty can be as much as $50,000.

Commercial boats licensed in other states may keep lobster bycatch in Area 3.

The bill would remove the state penalty on Maine trawlers.

Haskell has said the fine is punitive and could prompt the state’s remaining groundfishing boats to leave for out-of-state ports.

James Odlin, who owns and operates three groundfishing boats in Portland and two in Massachusetts, is one of the dozen or so fishermen who would benefit from the bill. Odlin has advocated for other bycatch legislation, including a proposal sponsored by Haskell that would have allowed Maine trawlers to land and sell lobster bycatch in Maine.

That proposal was unanimously rejected by the Marine Resources Committee, with strong opposition from the lobster industry. Haskell said the new bill is a compromise. While the Maine Lobstermen’s Association has not taken a position on the bill, the Downeast Lobstermen’s Association is opposing it. The newly formed Maine Lobstermen’s Union is also opposing the measure.

Steve Mistler – 620-7016
[email protected]

 

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