PORTLAND, Maine -- Lawmakers are looking to boost Maine's troubled lobster industry with proposals that would pump more money into marketing the state's signature seafood and offer tax breaks to encourage more lobster processing. The moves follow last year's chaotic fishing season that saw a lobster glut, a crash in wholesale prices and tensions boil over.
One bill calls for sharply increasing surcharges on lobster fishing, wholesale seafood and other lobster-related licenses, with the aim of eventually raising about $3 million a year in promotional funding. This year's marketing budget is about $380,000.
Lobstermen for the most part will probably accept the higher license fees, grudgingly, because they recognize the need to better promote lobster, said David Cousens, a lobsterman from South Thomaston and president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association.
"If we want to put our money where our mouth is and stop whining about low prices, we're going to have to start having a marketing program that has enough money to affect the market and do some positive things," he said.
Last year's upheaval was brought on by a lobster glut that caused prices to plunge. Lobstermen last year caught a record 123 million pounds, but they received only $2.68 a pound on average, the lowest price since 1994.
The proposed law would increase license fees by nearly eight-fold in three steps over three years beginning in 2014. The annual surcharge on the most common lobster fishing license would go from about $63 to $488. Surcharges on wholesale seafood and lobster transportation licenses would rise to $1,950 a year, while processors would pay $2,600.
The fee increases would go toward marketing, which hopefully should increase demand and drive prices up, said Rep. Walter Kumiega, co-chairman of the legislature's Marine Resources Committee. Maine's blueberry, potato and dairy industries spend a far larger percentage of their revenues on marketing than lobster does, he said.
"We aren't putting enough into it to get anything out of it," said Kumiega, a Democrat from Deer Isle, one of the state's most productive lobster-fishing regions.
Another bill would exempt purchases of lobster processing equipment from state sales taxes to help companies that want to start new processing operations or expand existing ones.
Last summer, Canadian lobstermen angrily blocked truckloads of Maine lobsters from being delivered to processing plants in Canada that turn out a variety of lobster products, much of which is sold to U.S. supermarkets and restaurants. The Canadian fishermen blamed Maine's huge lobster harvest for low prices in Canada.
Following the blockades, Gov. Paul LePage and others said Maine could have more jobs and add more value to its lobster industry if it processed more of its catch in-state rather than shipping tens of millions of pounds to Canada each year. Canada has more than two dozen processing plants, while Maine has only a handful.
Maine processing plants need a break because Canadian processors receive government assistance, said Sen. Christopher Johnson, the other co-chairman on the Marine Resources Committee and the sponsor of the bill. Helping Maine processors could boost lobster prices, he said.
Another bill, which will draw strong opposition from lobstermen, would allow net fishermen who catch cod, haddock and other so-called groundfish to bring lobsters they inadvertently catch to shore. The practice is prohibited in Maine but allowed in Massachusetts, so many Maine fishermen bring their catches to Gloucester, Mass., to increase their potential income.
Sen. Anne Haskell, a Portland Democrat who has submitted the bill, said allowing fishermen to keep the lobster by-catch would encourage them to bring their catches to Portland and help maintain that city's fish processors, fuel and ice suppliers and other related businesses. Her bill would place limits on how much lobster could be landed, make sure it came from fishing grounds far away from Maine waters, and require that it be brought to a Portland fish auction, she said.
Similar bills have been proposed over the years, only to be defeated in the face of strong opposition from lobstermen who fear that net fishermen will target lobsters. Still, Haskell's hopeful.
"The basic concept of the bill is to make sure we can maintain our Maine fishing vessels and preserve our infrastructure," she said. "I think we can do it without damaging the lobster industry."
Cousens, of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, said giving net fishermen a few lobsters isn't going to save Maine's fishing fleet.
Haskell's bill, he said, has virtually no chance of passing. At a hearing on a similar bill she proposed six years ago, opponents far outnumbered supporters.
"It's dead on arrival because legislators count," Cousens said. "If they go to a hearing with 1,000 people against it and 15 or 20 for it, guess who's going to win."