March 6, 2011

Chief of Marine Resources brings fishing background, diplomacy to his new post

Norman Olsen is seen as a problem-solver, but some fishermen wonder if he's up to date on the industry.

By Tom Bell
Staff Writer

Norman Olsen
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Norman Olsen

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A worker, left, with the Department of Marine Resources collects a sample of shrimp caught by the crew of the fishing boat Jubilee in Portland in December.

2010 Press Herald file


NORMAN OLSEN has been confirmed as the commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

THIS STORY is part of a MaineToday Media series profiling Gov. Paul LePage’s Cabinet appointments.

LePage's Proposed Cabinet

William Beardsley
Age: 67
Experience: President of Husson University in Bangor for 22 years. Candidate for Maine governor in 2010; Alaska Department of Commerce and Economic Development; professor; assistant to the president, Bangor Hydro

David Bernhardt
Age: 50
Experience: Director of engineering and operations, Maine Department of Transportation for which he has worked for 26 years.
Profile: DOT nominee never one to lean on his shovel

Stephen Bowen
Age: 41
Experience: Maine Heritage Policy Center; two-term member, Maine House of Representatives; high school teacher

Darryl Brown
Environmental Protection
Age: 66
Experience: Founder, Main-Land Development Consultants Inc.
Profile: Darryl Brown: Self-described conservationist draws bead on DEP 'attitude'

Philip Congdon
Economic and Community Development
Age: 69
Experience: Engineer, worked for Texas Instruments.
Profile: Commissioner values honesty, common sense

Maj. Gen. John Libby
Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management
Age: 66
Professional experience: Commissioner of Maine Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management; Maine Emergency Management Agency, Maine National Guard

Mary Mayhew
Health and Human Services
Age: 46
Professional experience: Vice president and lobbyist for the Maine Hospital Association
Profile: Health and Human Services gets a real fighter

John Morris
Public Safety
Age: 71
Professional experience: Director of Public Safety, Waterville; chief of police, Waterville, Raymond; U.S. naval captain
Profile: Safety chief seen as thoughtful, fair, forthright

Norman Olsen
Marine Resources
Age: 59
Experience: Diplomat, U.S. State Department; reporter; commercial fisherman

Joseph Ponte
Age: 64
Professional experience: Warden, privately owned prison in Nevada; corrections departments in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Idaho

Walter Whitcomb
Age: 58
Experience: Dairy farmer; six-term member of the Maine House of Representatives

Chandler Woodcock
Inland Fisheries and Wildlife
Age: 61
Experience: Executive director, Maine Harness Horsemen's Association; 2006 GOP nominee, Maine governor; former state senator
AUGUSTA - Norman Olsen paid much of his tuition at Cheverus High School and Colby College with money he earned hauling lobsters and herring.

After college, he fished a few more years before building a career as a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service.

Now 59, the Cape Elizabeth native is back in Maine as the new commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

It's an unusual resume -- fishing and overseas service -- but Olsen appears well-suited for a job that requires a peacemaker more than an administrator. The heavily regulated fishing industry is notorious for bureaucratic infighting, political brawls and regional disputes.

All of this is familiar terrain for Olsen, said Gene Cretz, U.S. ambassador to Libya, who worked with Olsen in the early 1990s in Israel and the Gaza Strip, which is part of the Palestinian territories.

Providing analysis to the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, Olsen traveled some 400 times to Gaza during the first Intifada, the uprising against Israel's occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem that occurred from 1987 to 1993.

Cretz said Olsen looked for ways to bridge differences among Palestinian factions, and between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Israel.

"Norm is analytical and sees both sides of the picture," Cretz said. "And he's very good at bringing opposite sides together and trying to find some common ground."

Olsen, who comes from a prominent Cape Elizabeth fishing family, said he never stopped following news of the New England fisheries during his various overseas posts.

Those posts include Kosovo, where he was chief of staff of a diplomatic observer mission; Geneva, where he was a deputy economic section chief; and the Marshall Islands, where he worked as deputy mission chief.

During his two-year assignment in the Marshalls, he served as an informal adviser on fishing issues to the country's president.

Wherever Olsen was posted, he always made an effort to go boating, whether it was exploring the atolls in the Marshall Islands or the coast of Turkey, said Pat Olsen, his wife.

Pat and Norman Olsen met in the swimming pool at Colby College and got married after graduation. For their honeymoon, they sailed from Maine to Florida.

Pat, a Connecticut native, taught her husband how to sail. He taught her navigation and seamanship skills.

The couple taught their three sons how to sail, beginning with lessons on a sailboat in the Oslo Fjord in Norway, while Norman was posted at the U.S. Embassy there.

"We are water people," she said.

After Norman retired from the State Department in 2008, the couple moved to Cherryfield, where they have owned a vacation home for several years.

While living in Maine, Olsen did some consulting work, training an elite U.S. Special Forces unit on how to deal with government personnel while on tour overseas.

He said he applied for the commissioner's job at the encouragement of a fisherman who is a close friend. At the time, he hadn't met Gov. Paul LePage.

On his application, Olsen wrote that he wanted to help rebuild the struggling fishing industry and generate employment.

He doesn't belong to a political party and would not say whom he supported for governor. In the fishing industry, conflicts don't follow the usual Democratic-Republican divide, he explained.

He said, however, that he and LePage are in compete agreement on the urgent need to create jobs, and he sees a lot of potential in shore-based processing jobs.

Jim Odlin, who owns three groundfish boats in Portland, said he knew Olsen when he was fishing in high school, and he knew Olsen's father, Norman "Boy" Olsen, who caught groundfish on a Portland dragger.

(Continued on page 2)

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