ROCKPORT, Maine — A dozen of the people hoping to be Maine’s next governor fielded questions on Friday from commercial fishermen frustrated by government regulations and concerned about the future of an industry central to the state’s economy and identity.
Audience members at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum debate and the panel moderator pressed the candidates on a range of issues, from their plans to revive Maine’s dwindling seafood processing industry to their thoughts on offshore wind power and school consolidation.
But with so many speakers on the stage, candidates participating in the debate didn’t have time to delve deeply into the complex financial, regulatory and scientific issues facing the fishing industry.
Instead, candidates sought to assure audience members — during the minute or two allotted for answers — that they understood the challenges confronting the industry and would work to improve the lives of Maine’s fishing families.
“I can think of no other industry in Maine where the regulations have been less predictable, and we need to change that,” said Republican Matt Jacobson.
Friday’s forum was held slightly more than two weeks after the last sardine cannery in the United States — Bumble Bee Foods’ cannery in the village of Prospect Harbor — announced it would close its doors in April. Company officials said the federal reduction in the allowable catch of Atlantic herring is the primary reason for the closure.
So it was perhaps no surprise that several questions touched on the cannery and the challenges facing Maine processing plants.
“We need a regulatory environment that is stable and business-friendly and a tax structure that is stable and business-friendly,” responded Democrat Rosa Scarcelli.
Republican Les Otten said fishermen are not getting enough help from the government bringing some of the world’s best seafood products to market.
“The first thing is we’re not selling it,” Otten said.
Republican candidate and Waterville Mayor Paul LePage repeatedly railed against Augusta and Washington, D.C., at one point calling government “the biggest enemy to business.”
“You can’t just let the federal government walk in and say, ‘No more fishing,’” LePage said.
But Democrat Senate President Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell disagreed with some of the blanket criticisms of Augusta, responding that coastal legislators work hard in the State House to protect the interests of their fishing communities. Instead, Mitchell said, Maine’s governor, Legislature and congressional delegation must work with other states to change federal regulations.
“We can’t go it alone,” Mitchell said. “We are going to need all of New England working together.”
Republican Sen. Peter Mills of Cornville pledged that the Maine Department of Marine Resources would remain a stand-alone agency in his administration. Gov. John Baldacci has repeatedly suggested merging DMR with other natural resources agencies as a cost-saving measure.
Mills said he would also make sure that DMR receives enough money to conduct the science needed to fully understand issues facing the industry.
Republican Bruce Poliquin said the situation at the Bumble Bee plant is symptomatic of the larger problems of overregulation and government waste. Poliquin stressed his belief that the next governor should be from the private sector, not a politician.
“We have such an unfriendly business climate … we are going to see, unfortunately, more closures in the next several years,” said Poliquin.
Green Independent candidate Lynne Williams, meanwhile, said the state needs to do a better job of courting seafood processing companies to locate in Maine, thereby reducing fishermen’s transportation and fuel costs. She also took several jabs at the state’s policies encouraging development of industrial wind power.
“I say stop expediting these projects and expedite things like seafood processing,” Williams said.
Democratic candidate and former Attorney General Steven Rowe said the government can help companies compete by lowering other costs, such as those for employee health care and electricity. Rowe also called for more money for scientific research to better guide federal fishing regulations.
“We need a governor who is going to focus on fishing and agriculture,” Rowe said.
Former Economic Development Commissioner John Richardson replied that while Maine does market its seafood products internationally, it needs to do a better job with the help of the private sector.
“Governors don’t create jobs; they create the environment and break down barriers,” said Richardson.
Jacobson, the Republican, said he would focus on speeding up the regulatory review process in order to encourage business investment in Maine.
Independent candidate Eliot Cutler, meanwhile, described Maine’s lobster industry as one of the best-managed fisheries in the world yet is still struggling due to factors beyond the control of fishermen. Cutler said that while there are ample ideas, it will take sustained leadership to “take back the Gulf of Maine.”
“You need to decide who has the independence, the strength, the experience and the skills to stay on the job and keep focused,” Cutler said.
Republican Steve Abbott said he often dealt with federal fisheries issues as the longtime chief of staff to Maine Sen. Susan Collins. That experience would be helpful when working with the feds from the governor’s office, he said.
“I am very familiar with the challenges you face,” Abbott said.