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Document Type

Comment

Abstract

On July 20, 2011 the Commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR), Norman Olsen, submitted his letter of resignation to Governor Paul LePage. Olsen then went on to release a public statement, claiming that the “[LePage] administration is more interested in pacifying special interest groups than in responsibly managing Maine’s marine resources for the benefit of the entire state.” To what “special interests” was the Commissioner referring? And what exactly was the catalyst for his abrupt and decidedly public split from the Governor who, only months earlier, nominated him to a prestigious and important position in state government? The answer, it seems, related to Olsen’s vocal support for new regulations permitting lobster bycatch in Maine. Bycatch, put simply, occurs when living creatures (in this case, lobsters) are caught unintentionally by fishing gear designed to catch a completely different form of marine life. The occurrence is largely unavoidable, and is a problem particularly prevalent among groundfishing vessels that trawl the bottom of the ocean with large nets. Usually, bycatch is discarded (thrown back into the sea), either because the fishing vessel has no use for it, or, as is the case in Maine, because discarding is required. In Maine, the prospect of allowing lobster bycatch to be kept and sold within state lines, even subject to tight regulation, is fervently opposed by the lobster industry. When Commissioner Olsen laid out a proposal to allow lobster bycatch to be kept by fishermen without lobster licenses in limited circumstances, he was met with immediate opposition. “[Olsen’s plan to allow lobster bycatch] caused a terrible uproar” according to Downeast Lobstermen’s Association (DELA) Executive Director Sheila Dassat. DELA “fought . . . the issue . . . adamantly.” Shortly after Olsen’s resignation, it became clear to many political analysts that the primary reason for Olsen’s abrupt departure and vocal split from the LePage Administration had a lot to do with his support for regulations allowing lobster bycatch to be kept and sold by groundfishermen in Maine. Indeed, it seems fairly obvious that the “special interests” Olsen referred to in his post-resignation statement were in fact one of the most powerful interest groups in Maine: lobstermen. The story of Norm Olsen’s resignation crystallizes what is, and has been, a divisive issue in Maine for quite some time: Should lobster bycatch be sold by Maine groundfishermen under any circumstances whatsoever? This Comment will purposefully explore that question. Part I will provide a brief history of the lobster industry in Maine, from its origins dating back before the industrial revolution to its current form. This is a necessary first step in the analysis of the above question, because only by understanding the history can one fully understand the deeply held, and historically based, belief of Maine’s lobstermen that they should have the exclusive right to land lobsters at Maine ports. To help illustrate this point, this Comment will provide an overview of some notable recent events involving lobstermen in Maine fighting with one another (often violently) over territory. Part of this analysis is drawn from James Acheson’s now famous book, The Lobster Gangs of Maine, which explores the culture of lobstermen in Maine and sheds light on the deeply rooted belief of many lobstermen that their right to lobster in a certain area is handed down to them based on tradition and the fact that their family has fished a certain territory for generations. Part I of this Comment will also explore the current regulatory regime regarding lobster licensing and lobster fishing in Maine. This analysis will illustrate the point that the history and culture of Maine’s lobster industry has created a proverbial family heirloom: a right passed down from one generation to the next, creating a culture hostile to any outside competition and interference. This information is essential to provide a context to how and why the current Maine lobster industry is so vehemently opposed to allowing lobster bycatch. Part II of this Comment will first explore the arguments put forth by those in favor of allowing lobster bycatch under limited circumstances in Maine, and then discuss the reasoning of those who say allowing limited lobster bycatch in Maine is an economic necessity. Additionally, this section will explore the fact that limited lobster bycatch has been implemented in other jurisdictions (in particular, Massachusetts).15 This analysis will focus not only how the allowance of limited lobster bycatch has affected the lobster and groundfishing industries in those jurisdictions, but also how it has directly affected the same industries here in Maine. Finally, this Comment will aim to synthesize all of this information into a proposal for slowly and properly introducing regulations that allow for the sale of lobster bycatch in Maine under limited circumstances. This proposal will take into account the history and tradition of the Maine lobster industry, but will also acknowledge the need for Maine to keep up with the modern trend in other jurisdictions, especially in today’s increasingly globalized and interconnected economy.

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