The Maine Legislature’s Committee on Marine Resources (MAR) met on February 8 to discuss two bills intended to help the state’s lobster industry.
The committee held a public hearing on LD 1916, a bill that would create a legal defense fund for the state’s lobster industry to help with ongoing lawsuits against recent federal government rules imposing new gear requirements and the seasonal closure of Lobster Management Area 1.
If passed, the bill would create the Lobster Legal Defense Commission and the Lobster Legal Defense Fund, along with a mechanism to raise money for the fund.
To raise money for the legal defense fund, the bill would require the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) to deposit 20 cents from the sale of lobster trap tags and would divert 20% of what the department makes on surcharges for lobster licenses and lobster dealer licenses, which fund the Lobster Marketing Collective.
According to Rep. William Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor), the bill’s sponsor, this would raise just over $800,000 for the legal defense fund.
The bill would also create a nine-member commission tasked with using those funds to “provide monies for legal actions involving, but not limited to, matters connected to the regulations of the United States Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration implementing the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan.”
The commission would have six public members who currently hold lobster licenses and three lobster dealers. The governor, Senate president, and Speaker of the House of Representatives would each appoint an equal number of members from each group.
The commission would review current and proposed laws and regulations, at both the state and federal levels, and determine whether legal action is appropriate. They would also develop criteria for who could receive money from the fund.
Money from the fund could be used to support legal action brought by either individuals or entities involved in the Maine lobster industry, brought by the Maine Attorney General’s office, or in defense of either individuals or entities accused of violating regulations.
Commissioners would not have term limits and the commission would exist until November 1, 2032. At the time the commission is abolished, any money in the legal fund would be split between the Lobster Marketing Collaborative and the lobster management fund. If neither of those entities exist, the money would go to the DMR.
Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook), a co-sponsor of LD 1916, testified in favor of the bill. Jackson called new federal regulations “incredibly harmful and dangerous.”
“Creating a legal defense fund is one practical step that we can take right now to give this essential industry the tools they need to challenge laws, rules, and regulations that would have a negative impact on lobstering and on the state as a whole. It would also put that funding in the hands of people with the expertise to determine how the funds can best be used,” Jackson said.
Testimony from the lobster industry was split between individuals in favor of and against the bill.
Virginia Olsen, president of the Maine Lobstering Union, testified in favor of the bill, but the Maine Lobsterman’s Union and the Lobster Marketing Collaborative spoke against the bill. Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher also testified against the bill.
“If we don’t responsibly defend our fishery, we will not need the Lobster Management Fund or the Marketing Collaborative in the next 10 years,” Olsen said.
Jim Hanscom, vice-chairman of Maine Lobstermen Union, also testified in favor of the bill. Hanscom said the bill’s funding mechanism is lobstermen, who primarily pay the fees that would be deposited in the legal defense fund, asking for their own money.
Speakers against the bill argued that funding for LD 1916’s legal defense fund would divert money away from other initiatives that are currently working to promote and defend the Maine lobster industry.
Speaking against the bill on behalf of the DMR, Keliher stated removing 20 cents of revenue from lobster trap tag fees would result in the department laying off workers. He was concerned that the commission would be administered and function from day-to-day, which is not included in the bill as currently drafted.
Keliher also announced that Gov. Janet Mills has agreed to include a $980,000 request for DMR to use in its ongoing legal work defending the lobster industry in her supplemental budget.
Dustin Delano, vice president of the Maine Lobsterman’s Association, echoed some of Keliher’s claims that diverting money from existing departments and programs could undermine ongoing legal cases. He said the fate of Maine’s lobster industry is “largely in the hands of the courts.”
The director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, Marianne LaCroix, also spoke against the bill, and expressed concerns about maintaining the image of the Maine lobster fishery in the face of increased public scrutiny as the lawsuits progress. LaCroix said the marketing collaborative works year-round to engage consumers and promote Maine lobster as a brand. She expressed concern that a reduction in funds would force the collaborative to choose between brand management and promotion of the Maine lobster industry.
Following its public session on LD 1916, the committee held a work session on LD 1898, an emergency bill that seeks to address the economic impact of seasonal closure of federal waters and new gear requirements by transferring $30 million from the unappropriated surplus of the General Fund and transferring it to DMR. The money would be put into the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan Impact Fund, which the bill creates, and evenly distributed between individuals deemed eligible to receive it by DMR.
Over 4,000 lobster fishermen are likely eligible to receive the funds, according to Keliher, who added his agency would have to run a query of its licensing database to exclude latent license holders. Eligible lobster fishermen would likely receive around $6,000 if the bill is enacted.
Amendments made to the bill would set aside no more than 1% of the funds, but no less than $210,000, to be used by DMR for administrative costs each biennium.
The bill would make DMR responsible for establishing eligibility requirements. Keliher, who testified in favor of the bill during its public hearing, was present at the work session and raised concerns about the funds being available to lobstermen ahead of the May 1 date on which new federal gear requirements will go into effect.
According to Keliher, once the bill is signed into law by the governor, it takes his agency approximately 100 days to go through the normal rule-making process, which could mean eligible fishermen would not receive funds before May 1. To avoid this delay, the committee discussed adding language that would create an implementation plan to the bill.
The committee voted seven to six to table LD 1898 in order to add language intended to circumvent the delay likely to be caused by the rule-making process.
Keliher offered to have DMR draft a simple proposal for the committee to work with in their next session.