Believing “Maine fishermen need options,” lobstermen who fish part of the year outside the state’s three-mile limit have traveled to Washington, D.C., and Augusta to make the organization’s goals known to the state’s Congressional delegation and state fisheries managers.

Officers of the Maine Offshore Lobstermen’s Association (MOLA) say they want to effect several changes in the way their fishery is managed to make rules more flexible for harvesters, starting with a few federal and state regulations that limit their fishing in federal waters Mainers once fished regularly.

“Maine boats are excluded from [federal] Area 3 because we couldn’t meet the federal landings criteria. We couldn’t keep our federal permits for Area 3 because we were not required to keep logbooks, so we had no logs that would satisfy their criteria,” explained Jon Munsey of Harpswell, vice president of MOLA.

“Basically, we felt we were removed from our traditional fishing grounds,” said Jim Merryman of Harpswell, MOLA president. “Lobstermen are evolving into year-round fishermen, because there are no options for other fisheries. Maine fishermen need options. If we need to go offshore in the winter to earn a living for our families, we should be able to do it.”

Terry Stockwell, Deputy Commissioner for External Affairs with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said the issue is complicated and that New England fishermen were certainly “screwed out of Cashes [Ledge]” but the issue, as with so many fisheries management issues, is complicated.

“Our guys are still fighting against having logbooks although other states all have them. The DMR has been working on this issue for a year and a half and we’ve only gone backward,” said Stockwell. “Back when our lobstermen were invited to apply for Area 3 permits, only a few more than 30 did. Only 16 qualified, but if we had had 150 apply, we might have had more negotiating power at the time and more might have qualified. But if our guys fished Area 3, they would have to fish under different rules and they don’t want to use a smaller minimum gauge.”

Harpswell lies in the state’s Zone F, one of seven zones created along the length of the Maine coast 10 years ago. In order to fish for lobsters in state waters, within three miles of the coast where most lobstering takes place, Maine lobster permit holders must agree to observe the state’s regulations in federal waters as well. This stipulation means harvesters must set their traps only within their zone’s boundaries, even out to the federal 200-mile limit in Area 1, the area where they are allowed to fish.

Two exceptions to this rule exist — the 51/49 rule, which says license holders must keep 51 percent of their traps in their declared zone, that only 49 percent may be placed in other zones, and harvesters must observe the rules of the more stringent zone for all their traps; and Zone G, which is different. The southernmost state zone ends at the state’s border with New Hampshire and therefore “Zone G has no western boundary. They can go all the way to Massachusetts, to Cape Cod, and still be within their zone,” said Munsey.

“If the state can’t make all zones equal, the zone lines shouldn’t extend beyond three miles,” said Merryman.

Stockwell said it’s true the zones began life as voting units only, but like many new creations, they changed in unforeseen ways as they moved through the law-making process. The lines, he said, were extended into federal waters at the request of lobstermen who lobbied the state legislature. “We sometimes find ourselves enforcing things we didn’t initiate,” he said.

Fishermen in Zone F say they are more limited in some respects than harvesters in other zones because “our zone’s bottom is all shrimp in winter. We can’t have gear in the shrimp tow zone,” said Munsey. “We just don’t have the area” but do have a high percentage of lobster fishermen. “We’re very condensed.”

MOLA was created officially last fall, but didn’t really get organized until spring when Merryman and Munsey were elected by a newly formed board made up of full-time lobstermen. “Many of them are senior fishermen,” said Munsey.

“We have members in six of the seven zones and the membership is growing every day,” said Merryman. Members range from Down East to Kittery. “MOLA wants to be a voice for every Area 1 fisherman.”

One of the group’s first official actions was a trip to Washington, D.C., in mid-May. “We were very well received” by Senators Snowe and Collins, and Representatives Michaud and Allen,” said Munsey. “They had no idea we had lost so much bottom. I don’t know where they stand, but they seem to stand for Maine fishermen.”

“We proposed a buffer zone for Area 3,” said Munsey. “We’re not asking for our Area 3 permits back, but we want to gain more bottom to fish and we don’t want it to be reciprocal. We don’t want Area 3 fishermen to be able to come into Area 1; we just want a buffer zone we can fish. Area 1 fishermen would fish under their laws and Area 3 fishermen would fish under theirs.”

A representative from Sen. Susan Collins’s office attended a later meeting Merryman and Munsey had with Marine Resources Commissioner George LaPointe and other officials from the Maine Department of Marine Resources where MOLA members again explained their proposal.

“The commissioner talked about compromising with other states, but we don’t think Maine should have to compromise. We’ve been the leaders in conservation measures for decades,” said Merryman.

At the July 11 meeting of the state’s Area 1 Lobster Conservation Management Team (LCMT), MOLA members proposed their buffer zone to the more than a dozen members of the LCMT and received a vote of support for the idea, with only “two or three abstentions,” said Merryman.

“It was terrific to see them there,” said Stockwell. “It’s hard for Maine fishermen to accept that we’re not looking at Maine issues when we consider Area 1 issues. There are people from other states involved and we’re just one vote.”

Changing the boundary lines, even to allow for a buffer zone, would be “opening Pandora’s box,” said Stockwell. “We would need a new lobster amendment. Our guys were always comfortable with the v-notch, the minimum and maximum landing sizes, but those were news to other states and hotly debated in the `90s. We thought it was a huge victory to get what we got. In the years since, the fishery has changed a lot. The lobstermen are a lot more mobile. But it’s not a Maine decision and if it’s opened up again, the other states might object to our rules again. In the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, Maine is only one vote.

“But I’m thrilled they’re thinking about the future of their fishery and the status of the resource.”

“Maine fishermen don’t want to infringe on other fishermen, but other states can fish the whole Gulf of Maine and we can’t,” Merryman said.

Maine lobstermen have two other organizations representing them now, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and the Down East Lobstermen’s Association. Merryman and Munsey don’t see MOLA as competitive with the two groups, rather as complementary.

“We’re not downing MLA or DELA. We want to work hand in hand with them because we have no other voice speaking for the offshore lobstermen,” said Merryman.

“Maine fishermen bicker back and forth, but now we need to come together to protect our way of life. If we come together and are prepared it will be easier,” said Merryman. “There’s not only the issues with the state and federal government, but commercial fishing is under pressure from all sources, such as environmental groups.

“We’re not going to be a do-nothing group. We’re fighting for fishermen. These groups spend millions of dollars every year picking apart our heritage. We are valuable to the state of Maine and this is not the time for sitting back and doing nothing. The time to act is now.”