The Gulf of Maine Research Institute is investigating the impact of Maine's limited-entry lobster licensing system on individuals and Maine communities that make up the state's lobstering industry.
Commissioned by Maine's Department of Marine Resources for $123,500, the evaluation includes confidential written surveys mailed to the over 7,000 licensed lobstermen, apprentices and individuals on the waiting lists.
The study will also look at how lobster fisheries in different regions around the world deal with similar problems.
"We're really looking at long-term trends. One year is a good data point when it's in the context of a larger trend," says Alexa Dayton, training and outreach community program manager and one of the evaluation's chief investigators.
John Annala, chief scientific officer at GMRI, says countries vary on how they regulate lobstering with some, like New Zealand's rock lobster industry, using a quota system instead of the limited-entry system much of the U.S. uses.
Deirdre Gilbert, director of marine policy at the Department of Marine Resources, says the Legislature-proposed evaluation is a result of frustration with the current system, which has led to a lengthy waiting list for those wanting to be licensed.
Maine's lobster fishery is broken up into seven geographic zones, and the average waiting list for most zones is 50 people long. As of 1999, zone councils determine entry and exit ratios for the issuance of new licenses. The state created the limited-licensing system, capping the total number of licenses available.
Those looking to acquire a license must wait till a certain number of lobstermen give up theirs in order to be issued licenses. Most zones require five people to exit before a new licensee is admitted.
Dayton says some have been on a waiting list since 2005.
"The issues have always been there. They've just become more and more exacerbated," she says.
Dayton says one option they'll possibly address is whether to allow licenses to be transferred between two people. She compares a lobster license to a driver's license. "You can't hand it to your son and say 'now you can go drive,'" she says. Other options might include a tiered license structure.
Not allowing the transference of lobster licenses can be an issue for family businesses where someone might have to wait for a family member to become licensed before retiring.
"What I'm hearing is there's interest in having licenses be transferable," says Dayton.
The issue could be contentious: on one side, if people are allowed to transfer licenses, Dayton says large companies could price out smaller operations and individuals. On the other side, she says, people retiring would be able to earn more money selling their operations if equity was attached to the licenses, since the boat and other equipment are devalued without a license.
Dayton stresses that this is merely a question they'll be asking and that GMRI doesn't have a stance on the issue.
Because it's so hard to get a license, Dayton says people are holding on to their licenses, even if they're no longer lobstering. The number of these latent licenses isn't recorded, but Dayton says there is a significant amount, around 10% to 20% of license holders who don't have any landings.
Although the investigators will turn in a written report Oct. 15, Dayton says just giving people a ream of paper won't help much. Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Pat Keliher will hold several public meetings for community members to provide more feedback before the DMR's final recommendation is presented to the Legislature.
Dayton anticipates presenting three or four different options for changes in licensing laws with pros and cons and projected economic impacts of each.
Annala says although he knows the report will be an unbiased presentation of the opinions of individuals in Maine's lobster industry, lessons learned from other regions, and the pros and cons of different options, he thinks the biggest challenge will be getting different individuals to see eye-to-eye on the issues.
"Industry members already have very different views on how they would like to see the lobster fishery managed," says Annala. "And they don't always agree."
The GMRI project team has begun hosting a series of public meetings across the different lobstering zones that will run through Sept. 13. Gilbert said of the five different entities that submitted proposals to conduct the evaluation, GMRI's was the most well-rounded and had the most extensive outreach plan to members of the industry.
Editor's note: This is a corrected version of the original story.