Gov. Janet Mills announced Thursday that her administration will reimburse license and tag fees for commercial fishermen and aquaculturists in an effort to provide some relief amid skyrocketing inflation and record-high fuel prices.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources will use $8.3 million in federal funds from the Consolidated Appropriations Act to reimburse the costs of commercial harvesting licenses, as well as associated fees, such as initial fees for tags required for each lobster trap.

“Maine’s commercial fishing and seafood industry is a crucial cornerstone of our economy, and they are facing unprecedented increases in costs,” Mills said in a statement announcing the reimbursements. “This puts money back in the pockets of Maine’s fishermen, aquaculturists and dealers to help them offset growing business expenses, hopefully providing a small measure of relief for them.”

“I know that rising fuel costs and other expenses have been a challenge for many fishing operations,” Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said in a notice to commercial license holders. “I hope this program to reimburse license fees provides some measure of relief that helps to offset other business expenses.”

To be eligible for reimbursement, the license must be a renewal of a commercial license held in 2021 and the license holder must have been 18 years or older as of January 2022. The department is extending the reimbursement offer to dealers and processors as well and will waive and reimburse 2022 commercial aquaculture lease fees through a separate process.

Under the reimbursement program, a lobsterman with a Class III license and 800 traps, the maximum number allowed, would receive $1,488 back from the state. A Class II license holder with 800 traps would receive $1,203. A zone 2 sea urchin diver would be reimbursed the $312 license fee, a scallop dragger would be refunded $243, and an aquaculture license holder would be reimbursed $133. Other license costs can be found on license applications listed on the Department of Marine Resources website.

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“I think everyone in the industry appreciates the opportunity to have that little bit extra cash at a time when the season is just beginning,” said Dustin Delano, a Friendship lobsterman who serves as vice president for the Maine Lobsterman’s Association. He said that expenses this year are “insane.”

“Obviously fuel is about double, bait is almost double,” he said. “Everything you buy is that way – rope, everything you need is higher, and lobster is lower than it was last year. Lobster doesn’t seem to be going up with inflation, so it’s going to be tricky.”

With the increased fuel and bait and other expenses, he calculated that he is spending over $1,000 extra per six-day work week. He said he just bought 100 new traps that cost him $130 each, which is $40 more than he paid per trap last year. Meanwhile, he is getting $5 per pound for lobster at the dock, which is down from record prices last year, when Maine lobstermen landed $725 million in lobster.

“I’m not trying to cry poverty; last year was a great year,” Delano said, “but a great year isn’t going to make up for a very lousy one.”

CREW PAY COULD TAKE A HIT

As a Class III lobsterman, Delano can have up to four unlicensed crew members. (Class II license holders can have one.) He pays his crew a percentage of earnings which he calculates “off the top” before subtracting expenses. Many captains do it that way, but Delano anticipates that could become a thing of the past if expenses keep going up.

Delano also holds a menhaden license and a dealer license for buying and selling bait, and between those and his lobster license and tags, he expects to receive a couple of thousand dollars back from the state. He said he is planning on donating that money to the Maine Lobstermen’s Association’s Legal Defense Fund, and he has heard that some other lobstermen will be doing the same. The Maine lobster industry is challenging upcoming regulations to protect endangered right whales and defending itself against lawsuits that aim to shut down the fishery to prevent the whale entanglements in fishing gear. The Maine lobster industry says it is not to blame for right whale injuries and deaths.

“The way I look at it, it’s money I already spent, and we really need every penny we can get to help with our legal fight,” he said.

The state will be processing reimbursement payments quarterly through the end of 2022. It is currently processing reimbursements for 2022 licenses sold between Nov. 15 and March 31. A letter has been sent to those who will receive reimbursements in this first round. Next, the department will process reimbursements for licenses sold between April 1 and June 30. Dealers will be reimbursed after the 2022 dealer licensing year ends on March 31, 2023.


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