AUGUSTA — Seth Morrissette works as a sternman on a lobster boat out of Friendship. He came to the lectern Wednesday at a Marine Resources Committee hearing carrying his 3-year-old son, Levi, on his shoulders. His voice cracking, he told the legislators that his son would get a lobstering license before he did.

“Shouldn’t I be the one who teaches him how to fish?” Morrissette asked the committee, noting that it was his grandfather who first took him to sea to learn how to catch Maine’s iconic crustacean.

Morrissette, 35, who gave up his lobstering license when he was a teenager, says he’s now 58th on a list of eligible residents waiting to obtain a new license. He was testifying in support of a proposal to modify how Maine lobstermen get fishing licenses, a complex process that has doomed some eligible residents to a decade-long wait in the name of conservation and local control.

Morrissette was among a group who testified in support of a series of changes that would, in the words of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher, “strike a difficult balance” between 5,800 current license holders and the nearly 300 on a long and unpredictable waiting list.

SKEPTICISM THAT CHANGES WILL WORK

But opponents of the changes – who outnumbered supporters by more than 2-to-1 – said Keliher’s proposal oversimplifies the problem and won’t create meaningful changes to the process of entering the industry. They also noted that Maine’s lobster fishery is a global success story that’s enjoying record landings.

“Given the success and profitability of the industry,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, “it is not surprising that there is mounting pressure to create more access to the industry.”

Roughly 123 million pounds of lobster were landed in 2014, with the value of the catch at nearly $457 million, a record.

Keliher’s plan also drew fire from the Maine Lobstering Union, a recently formed labor organization.

“We agree that action is needed to shorten the wait time, but unfortunately (this bill) as written does not fix that problem,” said Rock Alley of Jonesport, president of the union. “The commissioner of marine resources already has the ability to fix this problem. We have brought forward alternative language that would actually shorten the waiting list, and we hope the committee will consider this as an alternative solution, if they want to address this issue.”

The bill, L.D. 1503, would create a new, limited lobster and crab fishing license for a reduced number of traps; increase the age from 18 to 23 before someone who has gone through the industry’s apprenticeship program is put on a waiting list; and remove special fees for applicants age 70 or older, among other things.

As of November 2015, there were 293 names on waiting lists for licenses. Some had been on the list since 2005.

The current system, which is decades old, limits the number of people who can fish for lobsters as a way to keep the resource healthy. But it also has the effect of reducing competition.

LACK OF DATA, DIFFICULT CHOICES

The proposed rule changes are controversial because they would influence how lobstermen in the state’s seven lobster-management zones engage in the state’s most lucrative fishery.

These proposals come at a time when management of the resource is under intense scrutiny, as warming waters in the Gulf of Maine cause ecological changes that aren’t well understood. Lobster populations in southern New England have virtually collapsed, for instance, while they’ve remained stable in southern Maine and grown Down East.

Taken together, though, annual catches have been climbing. In 2010, 96.2 million pounds of lobster were landed, rising to the 123.6 million pounds in 2014.

McCarron, director of the lobstermen’s association, said making the wrong choices now could increase what’s called fishing effort, the intensity of harvesting that could lead to overfishing. Before making any changes to the entry rules, she said, the state needs to get a better handle on the number of licenses and trap tags that are purchased each year, but not used at all or only partially used. It also should review the waiting lists each year to see if some applicants have died or moved away. Data from 2012 indicates 29 percent of lobster licenses weren’t used that year.

McCarron also said the proposal undermines the industry’s zone council system. The seven zones were set up to recognize the differences in fishing practices, number of licenses and landings between zones that include Casco Bay, sections of Penobscot Bay and the Down East coast east of Schoodic Point.

In his remarks, Keliher acknowledged the lack of support for big changes and said the department’s proposals were an attempt to find compromise around modifications in the existing system.

It’s well-known that most lobstermen continue to hold their licenses long after they’ve stopped fishing, he said, “as it comes to represent a key component of their identity.” But the changes being proposed, Keliher said, would let in 50 to 60 additional people a year on waiting lists, which would represent roughly 1 percent of current license holders. For that number of new licenses to be issued under the current formula, 150 to 300 lobstermen a year would have to give up their licenses.

These and other details of the proposed law will be discussed in upcoming work sessions, which haven’t been scheduled.

The outlook for action is unclear because, as Keliher mentioned, this latest proposal was crafted after four bills that dealt with lobster licensing were killed during the last legislative session.

HISTORY OF PROTECTING FISHERY

Keliher’s proposal is the latest in a series of management plans aimed at protecting a resource that in the 1700s was so plentiful and unappetizing that it was fed to prisoners and the poor.

Lobster has been fished commercially in Maine since the mid-1800s. The first management laws, such as minimum size requirements, were put in place in the 1870s, according to the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine.

In recent decades, the lobster has become a global brand and an identity for Maine, as well as a source of income that helps sustain some coastal communities. That has led to practices ranging from trap limits and a ban on the harvesting of egg-bearing females to apprenticeship programs and management zones, all subject to debate in their time by an industry that prizes independence and self-reliance.