AUGUSTA – At the Portland Fish Exchange, there’s a hint of politics in the air, from a recent visit by the state’s new top marine official to a political letter taped to the customer service window.

If nothing else, Norm Olsen’s abrupt resignation as commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources has shed light on the plight of the state’s groundfishing industry and the challenges — and politics — involved with reviving it.

Gov. Paul LePage and other DMR officials see potential in Maine’s groundfishing industry, which through a combination of regulations and resource availability, has waned in recent years.

The state’s groundfishing industry wants to change Maine law to permit lobster by-catch, letting fishermen sell lobsters caught up in their nets. They say a change would help bring back Maine boats that have gone to Massachusetts, which does allow the practice.

But that prospect is loathed by most of Maine’s lobster industry, one of the biggest cogs in the state’s economy.

More than 100 lobstermen who signed petitions of concern regarding Olsen’s performance as DMR commissioner and some of their leaders met with LePage in the weeks before his resignation.

Many inside and outside the department agree that Olsen’s style was blunt and aggressive and that he failed to listen to other opinions.

Olsen, in an interview last week, said he was simply trying to accomplish the tasks set out for him by the governor, which included addressing the by-catch issue head-on.

Pat Keliher, the department’s acting commissioner, said his approach will include more outreach and potential compromise.

“It would be irresponsible for the state to try to drive something that is so contentious,” he said. “The conversations are all about trying to get both sides to understand what the other is about and making sure that those conversations continue.”

‘LOBSTERS PROVIDE MARGIN’

Though the groundfishing industry once reeled in up to 30 million pounds of cod, haddock, pollock and other fish, last year the total was a mere 4 million pounds. Another 13 million pounds of fish was landed elsewhere by Maine-based boats, estimated Portland Mayor Nick Mavodones, who met with LePage last week to seek solutions.

Bert Jongerden, general manager of the Portland Fish Exchange, said that if the state of Maine would allow boats to land their drag-caught lobsters, some of the Maine-based boats would come back home from Massachusetts.

He estimated between 150,000 and 250,000 pounds of Maine lobster were brought in by groundfishermen and sold in Massachusetts last year, “a percent of a percent” of the total harvested.

Last year, Maine lobstermen pulled in a record-breaking 93.4 million pounds, valued at more than $300 million.

“It boils down to the margins, and the lobsters provide margin,” Jongerden said in a recent interview.

Jongerden said many groundfishermen are saddled with costly boat mortgage payments, ever-increasing fuel costs and restrictive federal catch limits.

“There’s not enough (federal) allocation to go out and fill the boat with fish. If I’ve got 1,000 lobsters at $6 a pound, I’m thinking, I need those to count,” he said.

Recent changes — from a system limiting the number of allowable fishing days to a system of fish quotas by regions — has helped some harvesters, according to Terry Stockwell, deputy commissioner of external affairs at the Department of Marine Resources.

“The new system hasn’t worked for everybody, but the old system wasn’t working for anybody,” he said in a recent interview.

Stockwell said Maine’s groundfishing fleet has shrunk from a maximum of about 350 boats in the mid-90s to fewer than 100 now, the result of a loss of fish and corresponding tightened regulation. But now, Stockwell said the fish stocks have rebounded.

Keliher, the acting commissioner, said the strict federal regulations, while unpopular, had allowed the revival of key fish stocks.

“We’re at a place right now where the groundfish resource in particular — there is a growing potential there to see more landings and create more viability within our commercial industry,” he said.

SUSTAINING TWO INDUSTRIES

But the challenge facing the LePage administration is how to realize the economic potential of one industry without threatening the viability — or sensibilities — of another.

Many in the lobster industry say allowing groundfishermen to land lobster by-catch could threaten the sustainability of their resource.

“You start chewing away at our conservation and the next thing you know, it starts a whole downfall or domino effect that I just don’t want to see happen,” said Mike Dassett, the secretary and treasurer of the Downeast Lobsterman’s Association. “If the fishing collapses Down East, you lose everything, you lose the communities.”

Keliher said all industries under DMR’s oversight are important. Then he emphasized the importance of the lobster industry.

“(It) is worth a lot of money to this state; there are 6,000 licensed lobster catchers in this state, and they are the backbone of our coastal community,” he said.

The lobster by-catch issue will be on the list of ideas to enhance Maine’s share of groundfishing, but it won’t be the only thing, Keliher said.

“I’m going to be willing to sit down and talk to anybody and everybody that wants to go down that list and hear what they think. That’s the approach we’re going to take,” he said.

State Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, sponsored an unsuccessful bill a few years ago that would have allowed the landing of some by-caught lobsters. She said she’s not sure how such a measure would be received by the current Legislature, but she’s convinced something needs to be done.

“I am hopeful that people may be beginning to realize there may be a way to do this that is modest and brings our fishermen back,” she said in a recent interview.

Keliher admitted the challenge is balancing economic issues with resource management issues and that he doesn’t have the answers yet. But he said last week that the department will begin vetting ideas right away, and the administration plans on submitting legislation to aid groundfishermen next January.

Olsen, who said he is still a bit mystified about what unraveled at the end of his six months serving in LePage’s Cabinet, did not have much advice to offer his successor.

“I don’t know how they can do it and do the real job if 145 signatures from a tiny lobstermen’s group can lead to the situation that I faced,” he said.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

[email protected]