April 25, 2017 — Lobstermen fed up with cohorts who violate fishing regulations testified in favor of a bill to allow Marine Patrol officers to secretly install tracking devices on fishing vessels suspected of illegal activity without first obtaining a warrant.
While a smaller faction opposed the bill, both sides agreed that Maine faces a growing “epidemic” posed by a small number of law-breakers fueling dangerous conflict and threatening the stewardship ethos within the state’s most valuable fishery. They also agreed that the Maine Department of Marine Resources needed more enforcement tools, but lobstermen differed on whether DMR’s commissioner should be allowed to authorize the installation of GPS tracking devices without getting a judge’s approval.
“It is coming to a point where violence will happen and I don’t want to see it happen,” Jason Joyce, a Swans Island lobsterman. “I’ve fished my whole life … the department is full of people who (committed to) criminal justice and they are not trying to impose anything on us as an industry. They are trying to help us out and they need the tools to do it.”
Critics raised concerns about giving the DMR commissioner – a political appointee – too much power and criticized what they said was overly broad or sweeping language in the bill.
“We need to help our law enforcement, yes, but the way the bill is written presently is not the way to do it,” said Rock Alley, a Jonesport fishermen and president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Union.
Lobstering in Maine always has been a rough-and-tumble industry where territorial disputes, personal conflicts or perceptions of wrong-doing can lead to sabotaged traps, sunken boats and occasional violence. But those tensions have risen to new levels in recent years, including the loss of more than $350,000 in gear during an intense “trap war” in the Swans Island-Stonington area last year, and one lobsterman’s boat being sunk at its mooring three times.
Maine lobstermen hauled in 130 million pounds of the crustaceans last year worth an estimated $533 million.
State law already allows Marine Patrol officers to obtain a warrant from a court to covertly install surveillance devices such as GPS trackers on vessels when officers have probable cause to believe the operator is engaged in criminal violations. But many serious crimes in Maine’s lobster industry – such as fishing more than the maximum 800 traps or hauling another fisherman’s gear – are civil violations that therefore require officers to provide targeted fishermen with at least 24 hours’ notice before installing tracking devices.
The bill under consideration in the Legislature, L.D. 1379, would allow the DMR commissioner to authorize the covert installation of a GPS tracking device in cases where Marine Patrol officers show “probable cause” of a civil violation.
Commissioner Patrick Keliher said conflicts between lobstermen are “indisputably” increasing as some lobstermen fish too many traps, set gear outside of their designated zone or fish “sunken trawls” without buoys to evade detection. Keliher, who called the bill “the most important piece of legislation” of his tenure as DMR commissioner, said he feared the actions of a few bad apples threatened to erode the conservation ethic of the industry.