A state plan to double-tag lobster traps for enforcement purposes in Zones F and G starting Sept. 1 has revived a slumbering issue for harvesters in Zone F, in Casco Bay between Cape Small and Cape Elizabeth, who say they’re tired of watching harvesters from other states set traps wherever they want while they are restricted by zone boundaries, even offshore.
The second tags will be detachable, to be used on the traps lobstermen set outside their own zone, and bearing both zone letters, so patrol officers may haul them to make sure lobstermen are observing Maine’s “51/49 percent” rule: Maine harvesters from one zone may set 49 percent of their traps in a second zone.
But harvesters in Zone F say the second tags are not the real issue. Theirs is the smallest zone with one of the largest numbers of lobstermen The real issue for them, they say, is the fact that state regulations and zone boundaries extend into federal waters, limiting places they can set traps outside the state’s three-mile limit, while offshore fishermen from other states set traps anywhere in the federal Area 1 region.
“I don’t think it’s fair someone from New Hampshire can come fish here outside three miles and put traps anywhere when we can’t. It’s not equitable, fair and not what we were told it was going to be,” said Mike Robinson of Chebeague Island. “How can the state have jurisdiction over it if boats from other states can fish it? This is only tying the hands of Maine fishermen trying to make a living.”
Maine’s zone system, which divides the coast into seven zones, A through G, is ten years old now. Zone council members are elected by zone license holders, who may vote to lower trap limits, restrict fishing days and decide a few other questions within their zone.
While harvesters in all zones must abide by the same state rules, fishermen in Zone F say the boundaries that extend into federal waters cut them off from much of their traditional winter fishing grounds.
“Back when the zones were planned and the state was moving to trap limits and limited entry, we worked with the state to help manage the way people fish,” said Mark Olsen, of Chebeague Island. “But when the zones were planned, we were told the boundaries would end at three miles out. We supported the zones, but then at the last minute, we were told the boundaries would extend into federal waters.”
“I think we were misled” when zones were being planned, added Robinson, who has fished since he was 11 and now operates the Enterprise. He was involved with his zone council for years, but said he got burned out on meetings.
“I was in favor of trap limits, within three miles,” said Robinson. “They can dress it up and call it anything they want, but as far as I’m concerned, we were lied to.”
While Maine technically has no jurisdiction in federal waters, the state sets the terms of a lobster fisherman’s state permit. With the zone system, the state says that in order to hold a state permit and fish in state waters, a Maine lobster license holder must observe the rules set by the state wherever they fish, including federal waters.
Zone F harvesters say their zone boundaries cut them off from bottom where they traditionally set traps in winter, when the lobsters move offshore. Under Maine law, permit holders are allowed to set 49 percent of their traps in a neighboring zone, but if the rules — such as trap limits — are different there, they must observe the rules of the more restrictive zone.
“Zone G, from Cape Elizabeth to Portsmouth, has about seven or eight times the bottom we do, including Jeffrey’s Ledge, and maybe half the fishermen,” said Olsen. “For many years before the zone system came into effect, a lot of that was traditional Zone F fishing grounds.”
Olsen’s recollection was that zones were originally planned for voting purposes to set trap limits and limited entry only, “not to tell people where to fish.”
“All the Harpswell guys are forced to fish down our way, because they can’t go the other way” because the next zone to the east, Zone E, from Cape Small to Boothbay is the only zone with the lower, 600-trap limit, Olsen said.
Besides the other restrictions of the boundary line and offshore lobstermen from other states, Zone F fishermen say when it’s time to move traps offshore, they must compete with draggers and shrimpers towing right along the edge of the line.”Zone F is blubbered with gear,” said Olsen. “And then we’re inundated with draggers. And the offshore boats from other states can sell oversized lobsters right in Portsmouth. I can see having the restrictions inside three miles, but in December, January and February, when everyone is chasing lobsters, we should be allowed to do it, too.”
Three bills have been voted down in the Maine legislature that aimed to end the zone’s extension beyond three miles, starting in 2000.
The double-tagging plan is intended to enable patrol officers to haul some traps without having to haul them all to be sure a harvester is in compliance with zone regulations.
Increased mobility by fishermen could potentially be a problem for the lobster resource, said DMR’s chief lobster biologist, Carl Wilson.”There is of course some sentiment that it’s a free society, fishermen should be able to go where they please,” said Wilson. “Some fishermen believe the rules are impacting some groups more adversely than others.”
One of the reasons the Gulf of Maine lobster resource has proven so resilient despite an increase of pressure over the past 15 years,Wilson explained, is that the original, traditional lobster “territories” (as described by University of Maine professor James M. Acheson in The Lobster Gangs of Maine) and now the mandated zone territories, “breaks the pulse fishing cycle” common in other fisheries.
“In other fisheries, harvesters go to the `hot spots’ where the fishing is good, but Maine lobstermen have never said if the fishing is bad in Friendship, they’ll move gear to Stonington because they hear fishing is good there,” Wilson said. “Other fisheries keep up their catch rates by moving to where the fish are. By pushing the line offshore and having the 51/49 split, we contain somewhat the pulse fishing.”
Members of a new group intends to influence the discussion if they can. The Maine Offshore Lobstermen’s Alliance (MOLA) was officially formed in April, and while they are not willing to reveal all their plans and strategies yet, they will say they certainly intend to try to end the zone boundaries at the three-mile limit.