Maine fishermen share concerns with federal officials

Posted March 05, 2010, at 8:46 p.m.

ROCKPORT, Maine — Top officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard met with representatives of Maine’s commercial fishing industry on Friday to discuss concerns about new catch restrictions and mariner safety.

Eric Schwaab, the newly appointed administrator with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, and Coast Guard Vice Adm. Robert Papp met for more than an hour with U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe and more than a half-dozen stakeholders.

Throughout the meeting, which was organized as part of the annual Maine Fishermen’s Forum, industry representatives expressed frustration about pending sharp reductions in the catch allowances of Atlantic herring, which are used for lobster bait. Speakers said the limits are not based on science and could seriously harm the industry.

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said it is “just wrong” to force fishermen to absorb another huge economic hit during tough times without the science to back up the lower catch limits.

“This is a devastating impact on the lobster industry,” McCarron told Schwaab. “We are going to have bait … but I do think a lot of people are not going to be profitable.”

As a result of the reduction in Atlantic herring from Maine waters, lobstermen likely will have to switch to other, more expensive types of bait or pay more for herring shipped to Maine from elsewhere.

Mary Beth Tooley, one of Maine’s representatives to the New England Fishery Management Council, said she is concerned that NOAA’s budget has been essentially flat-lined at a crucial time as regulators and fishermen work to rebuild groundfish stocks.

Several speakers said federal regulators have lost the trust — and, therefore, the cooperation — of the fishing community with draconian restrictions on fishing. Col. Joe Fessenden, head of the Maine Marine Patrol, said the situation is very different with lobstermen, who support the sector management system and help police the industry.

“You couldn’t have enough cops to police this fishery if the [lobstermen] didn’t support the rules,” Fessenden said. “You have to get back on board with fishermen supporting the rules.”

Schwaab, who has been the top administrator within the National Marine Fisheries Service for only several weeks, primarily listened throughout the session but said he understood the importance of rebuilding trust.

In a statement released after Friday’s meeting, Snowe said she would continue to work for more cooperation and for sound fisheries policies based on science.

“Without sufficient science, we simply cannot make fully reasoned decisions about how best to manage our fisheries,” Snowe said. “The funding levels in the president’s budget request for 2011 will leave fisheries regulators groping in the dark as they set hard catch limits that will determine the success or failure of these indus-tries.”

On the issue of mariner safety, Sheila Dassatt of the Down East Lobstermen’s Association expressed concerns to Papp that the rescue helicopters that serve Maine are based in Cape Cod, Mass. Several fishing vessels have sunk in Cobscook Bay during the past year, with a number of lives lost.

“That is definitely an issue of concern. The rescue capacity is pretty far away from Down East Maine,” Dassatt told Papp, who is commander of the Atlantic area and has been nominated to become the Coast Guard’s next top admiral.

The Coast Guard also is facing significant budget cuts under the Obama administration’s latest spending plan. Papp, whose nomination as commandant is pending with the Senate, promised Dassatt that he would look into the issue.

“It has my attention now,” Papp said.

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