AUGUSTA (AP) – Overshadowed by debates over health care and taxes during this year’s legislative session were sharp increases in commercial fishing licenses, which will take effect in January 2004.

License fees will rise by 25 percent in most categories. The increases were imposed with support of the industry and Gov. John Baldacci, who opposed tax increases in general but acknowledged that those fees had not been adjusted in 11 years, according to Deputy Marine Resources Commissioner David Etnier.

The fee increases will help keep buoyant an industry that provides 27,000 jobs in Maine. Commercial and recreational saltwater fishing generates at least $1 billion a year for the state’s economy, said Etnier, who called commercial fishing an “economic engine” for the state.

The fee increases came about as a result of the $1.2 billion state budget shortfall that faced lawmakers when they returned to Augusta in January. The DMR was required to trim its budget by $1.9 million to help balance the books.

Class I licenses for lobstering will rise from $124 to $145. For Class III lobstermen, the fees will rise from $372.75 to $435.

The increases are added only to the general fund portion of the license, which does not include surcharges that had been tacked on.

The different classes of lobstering licenses are determined by the number of nonlicensed helpers who are allowed on board. Licenses for scallop draggers, divers and tenders licenses will rise from $89 to $111.

Sea urchin boat license fees will rise from $249 to $271. Of the total license fee, $160 goes to the Sea Urchin Research Fund. The $22 increase is actually in addition to the $89 base license fee, a 25 percent increase.

When the fees were reviewed by the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, the shellfish industry was well-represented in a show of support.

Budget cutbacks in the Marine Resources Department called for the elimination of several positions that included three shellfish biologists, and harvesters realized that their loss would result in later openings and earlier closings of some areas.

Reduced harvesting opportunities could hurt the incomes of harvesters, who agreed to the license increases if the new revenues covered the cost of the biologists.

AP-ES-07-08-03 1050EDT

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