Senate panel rejects scuba diving for lobsters bill

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May 16—CONCORD — A key Senate committee has flatly rejected House-passed legislation for New Hampshire to join coastal states from Massachusetts to Florida that allow scuba divers to fish for lobsters.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee instead is recommending a two-year, $100,000 pilot program to recover "derelict" fishing gear from the bottom of the ocean.

Sen. Howard Pearl, R-Loudon, said he hosted a private meeting with stakeholders, including the lobster industry, scuba divers, New Hampshire Fish and Game and Gov. Chris Sununu's office.

There was no consensus for a scuba diving season for lobsters, Pearl said.

"That's just a non-starter for many stakeholders," Pearl said.

The House of Representatives had passed the bill (HB 442) by a 3-1 margin, but some House members dropped their support as the lobster industry mounted a sustained effort to urge the Senate to reject it.

Fish and Game Law Enforcement Division Chief Kevin Jordan called the proposal the "most horrible" and unenforceable expansion of fishing proposed in his 33 years on the job.

Pearl's amended proposal would have Fish and Game supervise three days a year when lobstermen, scuba divers and other supporters would work to recover fishing gear lost at sea.

The House-passed bill would allow for the licensing of up to 100 scuba divers who could go beneath the surf to take by hand up to three lobsters a day for consumption only by themselves, "their families and guests."

Lobster season for scuba divers would run from April 1 through Sept. 15 and those with licenses could dive for the crustaceans at least four weeks during that period.

Advocates said divers would take 2,000 to 4,000 pounds of lobsters this way, a tiny fraction of the 5-6 million pounds commercial lobstermen take out of the sea each year off the New Hampshire coast.

The House bill would also empower these divers to free lobsters caught in traps that are broken off their buoys.

Environmental advocates cite studies that claim as many as 10% of commercial lobster traps a year are lost at sea, most due to trawlers that put out multiple traps at a time.

But lobster industry leaders said they track their gear and aren't responsible for large losses of traps and other equipment.

State Sen. Debra Altschiller, D-Stratham, said creating this program is an affront to the industry because there has been no documented showing they have been negligent.

Altschiller said the state already does a cleanup day of gear that washes ashore on the beach every April before the peak lobster season begins in earnest.

"We don't have great data that says there is a pollution problem that is the fault of the lobstermen," said Altschiller, who opposed the proposal that cleared the Senate committee on a 4-1 vote.

The full Senate could vote on this bill as early as Thursday and if passed it likely would refer it to its Finance Committee for further review.