Every member of the 129th Legislature serves on at least one of the many committees we have at the State House. They all hear bills that are within their scope of focus and oversee executive-branch departments. Every committee has two co-chairs, one from each chamber. Because Democrats currently hold the majority in the House and Senate, both co-chairs are Democrats, but the committees are made up of Republicans, Democrats, and independents.
This year I am serving on the Marine Resources Committee, where we’ve been tackling policies related to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, commercial marine fisheries management, licensing and enforcement, the marine and shellfish industries, and aquaculture. My colleague from Lincoln County, Sen. Dana Dow, also serves on this committee. We work closely with the Committees on the Environment and Natural Resources; Inland Fisheries and Wildlife; and Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry, as we all engage in some aspects of fisheries, water quality, and systems that impact the marine and estuarine environments.
The public most directly encounters the work of our committee and DMR when they buy lobster. This session alone, the committee has addressed some unique lobstering situations, such as youth lobstering on Monhegan Island and lobstering in the “gray zone.” On Monhegan, lobstering is closed during the summer months. This makes it hard for young people who hold student licenses to get the hours and experience they need, because the open season coincides with their school attendance.
Our committee has a big focus on lobster because it’s the highest-valued marine species in the state at $480 million. But we also work on fisheries including elvers, Atlantic herrings, soft-shell clams, worms, oysters, urchins, scallops, groundfish, and menhaden (in that order). When aquaculture is included, the value of fisheries topped $600 million in 2018.
I find that one of the best parts about serving on these committees is hearing public testimony on the various bills that come before us. In the case of Monhegan, we listened to two schoolboys who came with their grandmother to make their case. These are not only young fishermen who want the chance to fish their license, but they also represent a bright future in the declining fishing population on the island. The committee decided to make some adjustments to allow them to fish the zone in the summer months.
Lobster fishing in the “gray zone” posed a different set of circumstances. This is an area in the Gulf of Maine that is claimed by both Canada and the United States. Each nation’s different regulations concerning fishing in this area have led to security concerns regarding the gear in the water. With the guidance of the department, the committee decided to try a pilot program for U.S. license holders who fish in this zone.
At the beginning of the session, one of the first bills we heard revisited the lobster license “waitlist,” which is comprised of people who have finished their apprenticeship but have not been able to gain formal entry into the industry due to the number of lobstermen already fishing. Some people have been on the waiting list for over 10 years, and the committee considered plans to help those people “come off the list” to receive a license.
This issue is so important to the lobstering community that the public hearing lasted several hours, with arguments on all sides. We heard from lobstermen who have been on the waiting list for many years, as well as from other fishermen who fear “trap wars” should some of the zones add more licensees in the future. In the work session, we debated the merits, and disadvantages, and in the end, voted to continue the debate next year.
We did this largely because of the enormous challenges ahead for the lobster industry, most notably in the looming bait shortage, and in new federal rules on protecting the Atlantic right whale. Both of these will have an immediate impact on lobstering, which will be facing restrictions in the Gulf of Maine.
In relation to these industries, the committee strengthened elver fishing enforcement at the request of DMR, approved a scallop fishing apprenticeship, and discussed the best way to employ science in an effort to protect and sustain these marine industries. The intertidal zone also received our attention this session when we discussed threats to clam harvesters and wormers. Overlaying all of these decisions is the reality of climate change – sea level rise, ocean acidification, and warming waters.
The work of this committee is extremely rewarding to me, especially since I represent this beautiful and valuable region and the hardworking people who make their living on the water.
(Rep. Allison Hepler, D-Woolwich, represents Arrowsic, Dresden, Georgetown, Phippsburg, part of Richmond, and Woolwich. She sits on the Marine Resources Committee.)