Panel acts to save positions for oversight of Maine shellfish industry

Posted April 17, 2011, at 10:55 a.m.
Last modified April 17, 2011, at 5 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Appropriations Committee has given initial approval to a plan that shifts resources within the Department of Marine Resources to keep three positions filled in the agency to meet federal health inspection standards.

“This meets the need of keeping these marine scientist positions funded,” said Rep. Windol Weaver, R-York, the co-chairman of the Marine Resources Committee. “We believe this solves the problem.”

The problem was that the proposed two-year state budget only had funding identified for most of the first year. Without the positions, Maine’s shellfish industry is in jeopardy of a federal ban on the sale of state shellfish outside of Maine.

“They made it clear to us two years ago that we had to provide for these positions or we could not sell our shellfish outside of the state,” said Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry. As Senate minority leader two years ago he was involved in the negotiations that put together the patchwork of fee increases and reallocation of funds to establish the three positions.

He said not funding the positions in the budget was an oversight because the Legislature certainly would not jeopardize such an important industry.

“This will be fixed,” he said.

In 2008, the federal Food and Drug Administration sent several letters and emails including formal evaluations of the state monitoring programs to DMR. In an email to DMR in March 2009, FDA regional shellfish specialist Peter Koufopoulos wrote that the state needed to follow the testing procedures outlined by the agency or face a ban on the export of Maine shellfish.

“The long-term fix for the Maine shellfish industry is to have sufficient personnel working at the DMR who can adequately perform sampling activities, shoreline survey investigations, data analysis and detailed report writing,” he wrote. “Personnel are viewed as a long-term fix since it takes up to a year to complete various training courses, then additional time to put that training to use.”

An estimated 90 percent of the $60 million-a-year shellfish harvest is sold out of state. That is not lost on members of the Appropriations Committee.

“This is something that simply has to be addressed,” said Rep. David Webster, D-Freeport. He was among the lawmakers who worked out the original funding package and said the fee increases in that package were meant to be adjusted to meet the need to fund the positions.

But Gov. Paul LePage nixed that approach, telling DMR officials that he would not support fee increases and that they were to find the money for the positions within existing resources.

“We focused solely on submerged lands and working with DAFS [Department of Administrative and Financial Services] and the Department of Conservation we came to an agreement that we would continue on an ongoing basis with $80,000 a year from submerged lands,” said acting DMR Deputy Commissioner Patrick Keliher. The state gets payments for allowing docks and other structures that are anchored on submerged land that the state owns.

The remainder of the funds to meet the $120,000 shortfall comes from license fees that the agency already receives. The projected shortfall starts in June 2012.

“There is some belt tightening that goes on with this exercise but it keeps us whole out through 2016,” Keliher said.

Webster hopes the shellfish industry will grow as new technologies are developed to address the pollution problems that have plagued the industry for years. He said there may have to be additional staff if the industry does grow.

“But, that’s a good problem to have,” he said.

Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said the solution does not create any new positions, but continues three that are in the budget, but only partially funded. He said solving the issue has broad bipartisan support on the panel.

Keliher said the actual budget amendment will be part of the change package coming from the administration later this month. Lawmakers are on vacation this week.

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