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Lobster marketing bill supported by committee

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) -- A legislative committee is supporting a bill that aims to boost Maine's troubled lobster industry by pumping more money into marketing the state's signature seafood.

The Marine Resources Committee voted unanimously Monday in support of a proposal calling for sharply increased surcharges on lobster fishing, dealer and processor licenses, with the goal of raising about $3 million a year in promotional funding. This year's marketing budget is about $380,000.

The committee also supported an amendment to the original bill that cuts lobstermen's share of the funding from 75 percent to 50 percent, with dealers, processors and lobster transporters shouldering the other 50 percent.

Supporters say the industry needs a boost following last year's record harvest and low prices. Lobstermen last year caught 123 million pounds, but they received only $2.68 a pound on average, the lowest price since 1994.

Sen. Christopher Johnson, co-chairman of the committee, said the bill should benefit lobstermen and the state as a whole if it adds value to the lobster harvest.

"The wild blueberry industry benefits tremendously from that type of marketing," he said. "And the lobster industry stands to benefit tremendously as well in increasing demand, which in the end will help with the boat prices."

The bill will be rewritten with amendments and go back before the committee before it's sent to the entire Legislature for a full vote.

Lobstermen and others in the industry say with the harvest increasing sharply in recent years, it's important to increase the funding for marketing. It's been said that while the lobster catch last year exceeded 120 million pounds, there's only demand for 90 million pounds of lobster, thus driving down the price.

If the bill passes the full Legislature as expected, it would increase the license surcharges over three years to reach the $3 million mark for marketing.

Rep. Walter Kumiega, the committee's other co-chairman, said fishermen should be happy that their share of the funding is being cut.

"I think they got more than they asked for in a lot of cases," said Kumiega. "Most fishermen I talked to were good with paying 60 percent. But members of the committee felt that 50/50 made more sense."