The leaders of Maine’s fishing industry want Patrick Keliher to stay on as head of the state’s Department of Marine Resources under incoming governor Janet Mills.

“Our industries are confronted by major issues on the water, in international waters, and within several regulatory arenas that have major consequences for our ability to do business and remain profitable,” industry leaders wrote in a rare joint letter to Mills. “The future success of Maine’s seafood industry depends on the continued strong leadership, stability, institutional knowledge and political capital that only Commissioner Keliher possesses.”

There is no word on whether Mills, who worked with Keliher as state attorney general, wants the seven-year commissioner to stay in his appointed post. Mills is taking the industry’s recommendation into consideration, spokesman Scott Ogdon said Monday. She expects to make an announcement on Keliher’s fate soon, as well as other remaining Cabinet positions, so her administration can “hit the ground running,” he said.

At a campaign forum in October, Mills said she wanted honest, hard-working commissioners with expertise in their fields and willingness to enforce state laws. She said the ideal candidate would understand all the state’s fishing industries, including aquaculture, and would have “come up through the ranks.” Most importantly, Mills said her DMR commissioner must be a good communicator with consumers, industry and policy makers. “There’s been too little of that in the last eight years,” Mills told the forum, which was organized by the seafood industry. “We need openness and transparency.”

Other candidates told the audience they would ask Keliher to stay if elected, generating audience applause, but not Mills: “I’m not here to promise anyone a job.”

That is exactly what the members of eight of Maine’s major fishing organizations – Maine Lobstermen’s Association, Downeast Lobstermen’s Association, Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association, Maine Aquaculture Association, Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, Elver Harvesters Association, Alewife Harvesters of Maine, and Independent Maine Marine Wormers Association – want Mills to do.

“The notion of changing the guard at the DMR is a scary prospect,” wrote Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, in the trade group’s November newsletter “(Keliher) has done an exceptional job for Maine during the past six years and, with the future success of the lobster industry very much at stake right now, we need to keep his steady hand on the helm.”

Keliher holds leadership positions in regional regulatory agencies that have a lot of control over Maine’s lobster, elver, scallop and ground fishing industries. For example, as co-chairman of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, Keliher helped secure extra menhaden quota to help ease a lobster bait shortage caused by a declining herring stock. He will become chair of the group as it considers lobster reporting requirements and potential lobster trap reductions.

Keliher has earned praise from lobstermen for personally attending meetings where scientists, environmentalists and regulators struggle to find a way to protect the endangered right whale population without closing off sections of the $1.4 billion Maine lobster industry, especially when he criticized the science behind the recent Northeast Fisheries Science Center report on the state lobster industry’s impact on right whales.

Having fished for both herring and lobster in his youth, the Gardiner native worked as a hunting guide, at L.L. Bean and as a charter boat operator before taking a job representing marine sport fishermen with the Coastal Conservation Association. He came to DMR through the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission, which was absorbed by the agency in 2007, where he served as director of the sea run fisheries bureau until 2011.

Gov. Paul LePage made Keliher DMR chief after his first pick, Norman Olsen, resigned six months into his term after clashes with LePage and lobstermen.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

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