AUGUSTA – Can someone who has spent much of his career resolving conflicts overseas while working for the U.S. Foreign Service bring peace to Maine’s fractious fishing industry?
It appears Maine may soon find out. The Marine Resources Committee on Thursday voted unanimously to endorse Norman Olsen to be commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
Olsen has worked as an associate coordinator for counter-terrorism at the State Department, a senior adviser to the ambassador to Israel, a political affairs counselor in Israel during the Iraq War, and as chief of staff of a team of diplomats in Kosovo that arranged a cease-fire between Serbian and ethnic Albanian forces.
If his nomination is confirmed by the Maine Senate, Olsen will have to handle disputes among groundfishermen, lobstermen, shrimpers, shellfish harvesters, sports fishermen, herring, tuna and alewife fishermen, environmentalists, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
Speaking at his confirmation hearing Thursday, Olsen said he planned to build a sense of “community” among all the sectors of Maine’s marine resources industry, explaining that the economic climate of the industry as a whole can improve when sectors cooperate.
“We in the marine resources industry have always thought of everything as a zero sum game, one in which the extra dollar someone makes somehow comes out of our pocket,” he said. “Nothing could be farther from the truth.”
Representatives of several fishing sectors praised Olsen at the hearing. They liked his cool-headed diplomatic manner and also his personal connections to Maine’s fishing industry
Olsen is a fourth-generation fisherman. He grew up in Cape Elizabeth, and his father caught shrimp, whitefish, groundfish and lobsters.
Olsen began fishing for lobsters at age 12 and worked as a lobsterman for two years on his own 32-foot boat after graduating from Colby College with a degree in economics.
He also worked for a national company that harvested and processed surf clams and ocean quahogs.
“That’s credibility you can’t get any other way,” said Tom Valleau, president of the Portland Fish Exchange. “He has the respect of the fishing industry.”
One of the most controversial issues facing Olsen is whether lobsters caught as incidental catch in groundfish nets should be legal to sell in Maine ports. Because the practice is now banned in Maine, many groundfishermen land their fish in Massachusetts ports, where those lobsters can be legally sold.
A proposal to allow such sales in Maine ports was soundly defeated in 2007 after the powerful lobster industry lobbied hard against it. When asked Thursday what he thought of the idea, Olsen said he wanted to study the issue before making a decision.
James Odlin, a Portland groundfishermen, said he hopes Olsen’s diplomatic skills will allow him to help the struggling groundfishing industry without threatening the livelihoods of lobstermen.
“I am hopeful that the new governor and commissioner can find a way for both fisheries to exist and bring the groundfishing industry back to the state of Maine,” Odlin said. “There has to be a way to make that happen.”
Olsen must still be confirmed by the state Senate.
MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 699-6261 or at: