By Richard Gaines
---- — The Maine legislature is considering a bill backed by Gov. Paul LePage that would eliminate the legal bar to allowing lobsters caught by accident in the nets of trawlers to be landed in Portland — a change that could induce the owner of the state’s largest fleet of groundfishing boats to abandon Gloucester’s port for the primary one in his home state.
Between 12 and 15 Portland boats unload in Gloucester, in part to cash in on the lobsters landed as bycatch along with groundfish; the Maine boats account for a significant proportion of the groundfish landed and sold in Gloucester, according to Kristian Kristensen, who owns the Cape Ann Seafood Exchange, but a small proportion of the lobsters.
The influential Maine Lobstermen’s Association opposes the bill filed by Sen. Ann Haskell of Portland. By far the dominant state in lobster landings — by a factor of 10 ahead of the No. 2 state, Massachusetts — Maine is the region’s only coastal state to prevent the sale of lobsters hauled up as bycatch.
Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said her organization is supportive of the groundfishing industry, but believes that traps are the only responsible way to fish for lobster. Traps, she said in an telephone interview Tuesday, discourage large lobsters and egg-bearing females from getting caught and law requires and traps allow for the safest release of egg-bearing females.
Trawl nets, in contrast, McCarron said, easily harm lobsters by the compression against thousands of pounds of fish. McCarron also said that human nature in its weakness tends to target lobsters for sale in states such as Massachusetts which allows the landing of 100 lobsters a day and up to 500 a week. Lest anyone doubt her that some trawlfishing boats target lobsters, she said there is a Facebook poster, a Gloucester groundfisherman, who brags on his page that he recently took 473 lobsters “in one two-hour tow” including 148 keepers.
“Maine has taken the most restrictive position” on the method of taking lobsters and other states should follow Maine’s example, said McCarron.
“The Lobstermen’s Association has nothing against the groundfishermen,” she said. “We want the groundfishing fleet to be successful, but we think the only way to catch lobster is in a trap.”
Maine is by far the top lobster landing state with 126 million pounds in 2012 with an ex-vessel value of $331 million. Massachusetts is a distant second at about 10 percent of landing weight and value.
At the April 8 hearing on Haskell’s bill before the Marine Resources Committee, James Odlin, who owns outright or has an interest in five trawlers, said he would change his business plan and land his groundfish in Portland Fish Exchange if the measure passes. When it opened in 1986, it was the nation’s first public fish auction, but three years later the Ciulla family opened the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction, and, over time, the Portland boats — including three owned by Odlin’s Atlantic Trawlers Fishing Inc. — shifted their business landings down to Gloucester.
In addition to the attraction of legally buying lobsters taken as bycatch by the groundfishing boats’ trawl gear, Gloucester offered the only full service port with full infrastructure, services and quicker transportation to the Boston market and Logan International Airport and the domestic and overseas markets.
As more boats have abandoned Portland for Gloucester, the infrastructure of the port of Portland has suffered from insufficient use.
Kristensen, who acquired the Ciulla’s auction business in 2011 and renamed it the Cape Ann Seafood Exchange, said he estimates that Maine boats including three of Odlin’s were responsible for about one half the groundfish landed, sold and shipped from Gloucester, and about 80,000 to 90,000 pounds of lobster — about 3 percent of the total landings of lobster in America’s Oldest Seaport.
“In the past five years, we’ve unloaded almost exclusively in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and have landed approximately 20 million pounds of fish in Gloucester that could have, and should have, been landed in the state of Maine,” Odlin testified, according to a report by MPBM, Maine’s public broadcasting network. Odlin said if the Haskell bill fails to become law, he might abandon Maine completely and relocate his trawling business to Gloucester.
Arguing for her bill, Haskell said, “These lobsters are already being caught. They’re just being landed outside of the state. They’re being landed in other places and, consequently, the fish are being landed there as well.”
A loosely similar 2007 bill filed by Haskell was killed, but she describes her new bill as more moderate. It would shift the debate to the desk of the director of marine resources who would decide how many by-caught lobsters could be landed in Maine.
Speaking to the committee on behalf of the governor, Meredith Mendelson, deputy director of marine resources, emphasized the “indisputable” fact that “groundfish trawlers are landing lobsters taken in federal waters, including lobster taken in the area just outside Maine’s state waters ...”
“These lobsters are being landed,” Mendelson added. “Regrettably, they are being landed in Massachusetts, and the associated economic impact of the trip, including auction of the fish, purchase of fuel, ice, gear and provisions, are benefiting ports in Massachusetts instead of Maine purveyors and gear shops, vessel Services, and the Portland Fish Exchange.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.