By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – A week after lobstermen packed a hearing on a bill to prevent a new permit to allow people to dive for lobster, the committee heard largely from the other side Tuesday saying the measure is fair and reasonable.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee began to hear testimony on creating a new license to take lobster in House Bill 442.
New Hampshire and Maine do not allow such a practice, but it is allowed in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, and other states along the Eastern seaboard.
As amended it would provide divers a two month window to take about 24 lobsters and would allow them to remove traps from the sea floor.
Col. Kevin Jordan of New Hampshire Fish and Game Department said the bill was unenforceable.
“This thing is a mess,” he said.
But Graham Birch of Hollis, a part-time SCUBA instructor, said the bill is a reasonable proposal that respects the lobster industry and its resource.
The bill passed the House with an amendment by a vote of 276 to 100.
In addition to establishing a SCUBA lobster fishing license, the bill also requires persons lobstering with a commercial license to record the location of where a lobster trap is placed and make a good faith effort to retrieve such trap if it becomes detached from its buoy.
It reads, “A person who is a resident of this state and wishes to engage in scuba diving or freediving, also known as skin diving, as a recreational activity, and who is in compliance with RSA 270:31 through 270:32-a and has attained 18 years of age, shall be permitted to take lobsters under a scuba diver recreational lobster license issued by the executive director. The executive director shall limit the number of scuba diver recreational lobster licenses to 100 beginning with the calendar year this paragraph becomes effective. Licenses shall be issued on a first-come, first-served basis from the date the executive director establishes as the time when licenses can be issued,” it states.
Mike Flanagan, 81, who has been a commercial fisherman since the age of 13 said it is totally wrong to allow SCUBA divers to gather lobsters and clean up “ghost gear” of lobstermen, abandoned traps that can have starving lobsters or fish, known as bycatch.
“It’s the improper way,” Flanagan said adding it would be wrong to touch lobsters.
Rep. Greg Hill, R-Northfield, sponsor of the bill offered amendments that he said cleared up concerns raised by Fish and Game about the bill.
He said the bill will allow divers something they cannot do now which is to be able to release the animals starving in these traps. The deaths attract others to come in as bait.
Lobstermen say they lose 10 percent or 11,000 in New Hampshire alone. People picking them up in Maine are saying that 60 percent of traps are live.
Luis Figueroa of Merrimack spoke in support of the bill and said lobsters are a resource for all and should not just be accessible to the wealthy and those in the commercial business.
“I truly understand the challenges of a commercial lobsterman…but if we really believed it would be a burden we would not be pushing this bill,” he said.
Sean Dubois of Pelham, who has been SCUBA diving for years said he was in support of taking a few lobsters by diving.
“I think it is time for possibly trying this,” he said. “It would be nice to finally be able to do this.”
Fish and Game can just check captures in Rye Harbor, he said, and would not require them to suit up.
Most important in the bill is the clean-up aspect he said.
“We want to be able to get involved too to help clean up,” he said and argued it is less invasive to be taking the lobsters by hand than having them thrown back in the ocean by lobstermen if they are not of the size and be subject to predators on the way back down to the ocean floor.
Lobsters are nocturnal and hard to find in the daytime, the divers argued.
Wayne Russell, 70, said he started diving in 1974 and this is the fourth time he has supported a diving lobster bill.
“In my entire diving career, I have never taken lobster. I have respect for the law.
I feel we should be allowed to take lobster…This is not an aggressive, horrible undertaking. The amount of lobster we can take is very small,” he said.
Rep. Tim Cahill, R-Raymond, said he came to support the bill and noted the animosity and entitlement he encountered from lobstermen.
He recalled a time he was cleaning up a beach and saw an abandoned lobster trap and was then accused by the owner of taking the lobster out of the trap.
That ownership attitude, he said he saw at the last hearing upset him, and said the lobsters are not owned by any one group.
“One group should not have control over all the groups,” he said.