AUGUSTA — Lobstermen were warned Tuesday that the federal government will tell them ways to conserve Maine’s lobsters if they don’t do it themselves.
“If you don’t take the initiative, they’ll do something for you,” David Cousens, a member of the Lobster Advisory Council, told the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee and about 200 lobstermen.
The lobstermen attending the hearing were divided on a bill that would limit the number of traps they can use, impose a moratorium on licenses, create a two-week ban on lobstering and set a fee for each trap they use.
Cousens said the federal government has set a 1992 deadline for a comprehensive plan to protect lobsters from overfishing. He said Maine can either be a leader, or let the federal regulators adopt a plan.
“My feeling is, let’s keep it in the state. Let’s not hand it over to the feds,” he said. “By doing nothing, we’re handing it over to the feds.”
Most lobstermen agree that Maine’s coastal waters are becoming too crowded with traps, but few agree whether a limit on traps or licenses will help the situation.
The bill introduced by Sen. Linda C. Brawn would halt the issue of new licenses for a two-year period beginning in 1992, impose a 50-cent tag fee per lobster trap and establish a two-week “haulout period” when all traps must be pulled from the water.
The most contentious point is the proposed limit on the number of traps each lobsterman can use — the ceiling would begin at 1,000 traps in 1992 and be reduced to 600 by 1996.
Debate seemed to lean more toward protecting the lobsterman’s way of life than conserving lobsters.
Rep. James Skoglund, a co-sponsor of the bill, said that in the past lobstermen were limited to how many traps they could build and how many they were strong enough to haul.
That’s all changed. Larger boats, factory-made wire traps and hydraulic trap-hauling have resulted in crowded waters and increased competition, Skoglund said.
That’s a stark contrast to lobstering in the past, when anybody could put on a slicker, grab a license and catch as many lobsters as they wanted without worry of competition, prices or protecting the resource.
“Many say it’s not so much fun as it used to be,” Skoglund said.
But lobsterman Jim Tripp of Spruce Head characterized the attempt to limit licenses and traps as a “jealousy” law supported by some lobster fishermen too lazy to remain competitive.
Many supporters of the bill said lobstermen can catch the same number of lobsters with fewer traps. “You say we’re going to catch the same number of lobsters. That’s not conservation,” Tripp said.
Bob Smith, 69, of Jonesport said there’s nothing wrong with the present system.
“If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it,” he said. “What you’re attempting to do is change the whole system.”
David Sullivan of Kittery said the Legislature needs to study the issue before trying to revamp the industry.
“You can’t throw a blanket over the state and say 600 (traps) is good for everyone,” he said. “This is like an engine. It needs a tuneup, not an overhaul.”