Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher plans to participate in many of the different breakout sessions at the upcoming Maine Fishermen’s Forum, March 1-3 at the Samoset Resort. Keliher was sworn in on Jan. 26, after serving for six months as the DMR’s acting commissioner.

In addition to sitting in on many of the forum’s scheduled sessions, Keliher will be guest of honor at a Meet the Commissioner forum.

“I will take questions and the governor may attend,” he said.

Keliher said the effort to balance depleted resources, such as cod, with a more efficient fishery has to take into account the best available science.

“It’s disturbing that the last stock assessment was just so damned wrong,” he said. “We’re trying to see what is the best course of action. The [National Marine Fisheries] Service will give us another year or so to figure out how to move forward.”

He said interim cuts put in place are too large and that balancing increased demand with shrinking fish populations depends on the health of the particular stock.

“Lobsters are a different conversation,” he said of that healthy fishery, before mentioning shrimp. “If we’re going to continue to have success, fisheries management has to be adaptive within the fishery itself.”

“Going from a days-at-sea approach to effort reduction to sectors was an example of good outside-the-box thinking,” Keliher said.

He said managers need to take a creative approach to all fisheries.

“The shrimp fishery this year is a great example. We went from 12 million [pounds] landed last year to target of 4.3 million this year in order to extend that fishery as many years as possible into the future.”

He said adding processing capability inside the state also added value to the fishery.

“The department had to set up to expand monitoring, basically micromanage the fishery to make sure the economic gain was in place for the state, not just the value of the harvest but the shore side value as well,” he said.

Lobster issues vary from zone to zone

Keliher said the question for the lobster industry was one of how the fishery looks in the future.

One concern he expressed is that of latency — licenses and trap permits that are not currently in use, but represent the legal right to access the fishery. If those holding licenses and trap tags decide to take advantage of them, it could flood the fishery with increased effort, he said.

“There’s about 3.3 million trap tags sold and only 2.5 to 2.7 million being used,” he said. “That’s a lot of traps that are sitting idle. You have to take into the equation the concept of entry and exit in the fishery.”

Since taking his post, Keliher visited each of the state’s lobster zone councils.

“It was enlightening,” he said. “As you move from west to east, fishermen have a very different perspective on the issue of transferability of licenses and trap tags. To the westward, fishing is down and they’re amenable to discussing increased controls on transferability.”

“Down East is a different story,” he said. “My role is to facilitate a discussion with the industry. Over the next year we will talk about ways the fishery might be changed to improve profitability of the industry and maintain sustainability for the resource. At the end of the day, the Legislature is going to have to give a blessing to any of these efforts.”

“There is no better time for this discussion,” said Keliher. “The harvest is up. The resource is healthy. We have time to finish this discussion.”

“The Legislature looked, last year, at limited entry,” said Keliher. He said the DMR planned to issue a request for proposals to get an independent view of how the fishery works in Maine and what the opportunities could be.

Protecting Maine’s marine resources in the face of pressure for energy development

“Offshore wind is a big topic right now,” said Keliher. He said he was working fast to get up to speed on the issue.

“The issue is competition for space in the ocean,” he said.

He said more work needs to be done to truly understand if vibrations from turbines and electromagnetic fields have a negative impact on marine life. Keliher said wind power did not effect the ocean environment in the same way as sonar, and that there are many underground cables that have healthy marine resources along them.

“The issues of the windmills are bigger,” he said. “What I’m dealing with now is the conversation of ‘that’s our bottom and now feds want to lease it.’ How do we balance access to a resource versus the need for renewable power? It’s an ongoing discussion and the department will remain involved.”

Balancing the global taste for Maine seafood with the need for a healthy fishery

Keliher said promotion, research and development components are all part of maintaining healthy fisheries with global markets.

“There is a taste, a desire to have fresh seafood from the state of Maine,” he said. “Some of the resources we harvest in smaller quantities can be sold to markets in Maine and along the East Coast and the Northeast.”

“Lobster is a whole other animal in terms of the quantities we are harvesting now and the need to be sure we have processors in Maine who can capture the shore side value,” Keliher said.

He said markets were being developed not just in New England but overseas.

Keliher said a DMR audit, due at the end of this month, could prove that last year’s lobster harvest was more than 100 million pounds.

“Canada’s was probably more,” he said.

Understanding the impacts of climate change

“I’m not sure you can predict the impacts of climate change on our fisheries,” said Keliher. “There are different species, like Atlantic salmon, that are much more susceptible to warming temperatures than others.”

“Last year there was a 3-degree temperature difference — in the warmer direction — in late winter and early spring, when the shrimp were moving inshore,” Keliher said. He said that information showed a correlation with DMR surveys on where fishermen were finding shrimp.

He said this was another area where he was working to improve his knowledge.

“The whole issue of global warming is being looked at by [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s] Fisheries. It’s up to the state to continue to monitor and engage in those discussions,” he said.

Keliher said it was important to determine what, if any, impact climate change and its related consequences will have on Maine fisheries.

While he said he was still coming up to speed on ocean acidification, “Acidification can be detrimental to anything with a shell,” he said. “It could be devastating. We need to continue to look at it.”

He said the University of Maine and its Sea Grant program were doing research on this issue.

Protecting fishing communities is part of the mission

Keliher said the DMR has a responsibility to protect fishing communities as well as the resources they rely on.

“We absolutely do,” he said. “The Legislature has made it very clear on the lobster side of the business that we are to work — with the islands — on island limited-entry lobster zones.”

He said the department must support the economic viability and economic stability of island life.

“I personally take that beyond the islands to our onshore coastal communities,” Keliher said. “Without them we do not have an industry. The industry thrives, and coastal communities thrive, based on the health of the resource.”

“This is one of the biggest issues that faces the state,” he said.

“For every dollar’s worth of fish there’s roughly $4 of economic activity along the coast,” Keliher said. “This is the economic engine of our coastal communities. It would be a mistake for the commissioner and the DMR to not recognize the value to the coastal economy and the state economy.”

Working with a diverse community of independent fishermen

Keliher said transparency and listening were the best ways to maintain relationships with Maine’s fishermen, who often do not participate in advisory councils and other mechanisms for gauging their concerns and responses to regulatory changes.

“It is my role to facilitate the conversations with industry,” he said. “There is a large segment of the industry in Maine that doesn’t want to participate in these open meetings through our advisory councils. But, they have a voice and we need to find a way to better understand the full community.”

“It’s up to the department to be more proactive and improve our communications,” he said.

“A month or so ago I had to go down to Washington County to talk to what I thought would be 30 or 40 fishermen. Almost 200 showed up,” Keliher said.

That meeting highlighted the Scallop Advisory Committee’s role in reopening closed scallop areas.

“What I learned from that meeting — fishermen said, ‘our voices are not heard’ there,” he said.

He said conversations in smaller groups help him gain a better understanding about how fishermen view the resources.

“It becomes a different conversation, because it’s a kitchen table conversation, not a group of 50 or 60 fishermen trying to express their opinions,” he said.

He said councils are important, “But we need other ways to communicate with the industry, whether it’s at a kitchen table, in my office or on a boat.”

Keliher said the DMR’s job is to manage the resources, especially the ones that are “right on the edge. Not just to protect the resource, but for its expanded economic benefit.”

Fishermen and others will have an opportunity to ask their own questions at the Meet the New DMR Commissioner session at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum on Friday, March 2 from 10:30 a.m. to noon in the Rockland and Rockport rooms at the Samoset Resort.

The VillageSoup Gazette Reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by email at sauciello@villagesoup.com.

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