Once a working waterfront is gone, there’s little chance of getting it back.

Maine has made a tremendous public effort to protect its working waterfront, investing taxpayer dollars and adopting new public policies to make sure that we can continue to benefit from our state’s close relationship to the sea.

Right now, the Legislature has an opportunity to make a change in state law that would protect the infrastructure of Portland’s working waterfront, create or protect as many as 350 jobs, and revitalize the state’s nonprofit Fish Exchange. And there’s no cost to taxpayers, no cost to be borne, no risk to be absorbed.

Current federal law allows groundfishing boats that catch lobster as they trawl in federal waters to sell them. Called by-catch, the groundfishing fleet is allowed to sell up to 500 lobsters per trip when they sell the rest of their catch.

Maine, however, prohibits the practice and is the only state of 10 where American lobsters are landed to do so.

Groundfishing vessels, many of which call Maine home, are forced to travel to Gloucester, Mass., to sell their fish and the lobster by-catch, putting at jeopardy Portland’s working waterfront and risking the permanent loss of what’s left of the groundfishing fleet.

Last year, more than 126 million pounds of lobster were caught close to shore in traps. By contrast, less than 100,000 pounds were caught by groundfishing boats, less than one-tenthof 1 percent of the total.

Lobstermen in Maine are understandably protective of their fishery and of their turf. But by-catch won’t impact their close-to-shore fishery or hurt efforts to market their catch.

The Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee is currently considering a bill sponsored by State Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Cumberland, that would allow groundfishing boats to sell their by-catch in Portland.

The bill has earned the support of Gov. Paul LePage, Patrick Keliher, the commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, State Senate President Justin Alfond and Portland Mayor Michael Brennan. It’s a fisherman’s platter of bipartisan support.

The legislation, called LD 1097, limits groundfishing boats from taking lobsters closer than 40 miles from shore. In fact, most lobster by-catch is netted more than 140 miles off Maine’s coast.

The bill also gives the Department of Marine Resources extensive authority to monitor the by-catch landings and to place new restrictions on the practice to ensure that allowing these lobsters to be sold in Maine remains revenue neutral.

With fuel and bait prices getting more and more expensive and with last year’s drop in dock prices for lobster, there’s no wonder that Maine lobstermen are concerned about allowing by-catch to be sold in the state.

But, in reality, the impact on the fishery and on their businesses doesn’t exist. There’s no reason that this issue should pit one fishery against another.

Already, fishing boats are allowed to keep lobsters and sell them. They’re just required to land the lobster in Massachusetts, where some of them are loaded onto trucks and shipped into Maine for sale.

Maine and federal restrictions apply to the catch, just as they do closer to shore. And the practice is far from new, yet Maine’s lobster fishery remains robust, more than doubling in the amount of lobster taken since 2000.

But while the impact on lobstermen is minimal, the impact of allowing the by-catch to be sold in Maine would be huge for local businesses, for Portland’s working waterfront and for the groundfishing industry.

Estimates suggest that Maine’s Fish Exchange could see an increase from 4 million pounds of groundfish sold per year to 20 million pounds. Each dollar spent at the market flows through Maine’s economy, helping other businesses to grow and prosper.

After years of strict federal management, groundfishing stocks are rebounding and Maine has an opportunity recapture boats and sales that have moved to Massachusetts.

Maine has a strong tie to the sea, one that dates back to our state’s founding. By allowing by-catch to be sold in the state, lawmakers would help to diversify our fishing economy, create new jobs and protect traditional businesses.

There are fishing boats ready to come home to Maine. By allowing them to sell their by-catch under heavily controlled and monitored conditions, we can make Maine more competitive and keep one of our biggest working waterfronts working.

James Odlin owns Atlantic Trawlers, which has three groundfishing boats he would like to return to Maine. He lives in Bethel.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.