‘Blacklisted’ Portland fishermen seek access to federal permits

Posted Nov. 10, 2011, at 5:18 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Portland Fish Exchange leaders say city fishermen are being unfairly excluded from a federal permit program.

“Why should Portland boats be blacklisted?” said Thomas Valleau, former Portland Fish Exchange board president and current member. “I don’t get it. Everybody’s been struggling with fishery issues the past 10 years, but boats in the principal port of Maine — Portland — are blacklisted.”

The state Department of Marine Resources received a grant for nearly $3 million from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries division, to be used buying up federal commercial fishing permits. Under the program, DMR collects the permits largely from retiring fishermen out-of-state, then keeps them in a permit bank to be accessed at a reduced cost by Maine fishermen.

But restrictions placed on the program prevent fishermen from home ports with populations larger than 30,000 people from taking part. In Maine, only Portland, Lewiston and Bangor have populations greater than 30,000, and of those three, only Portland has a harbor to support commercial fishing.

As a result, officials with the Portland Fish Exchange said fishermen from Maine’s largest city feel singled out. The governing board of the quasi-public seafood auction house sent a letter to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service requesting that the home port restriction, among other limitations included in the permit bank program, be lifted.

“We’re not looking at it, per se, just for the city of Portland’s sake,” said Portland Fish Exchange board president Kate Varian, of Bremen. “It’s about fairness for all, to help the most fishermen possible with what we have available. To exclude the people who happen to be in Portland, doesn’t seem to be a fit. I’m not sure I can understand the rationale behind it.”

In a responding letter, National Marine Fisheries Service Regional Administrator Patricia Kurkul wrote that her office is talking with DMR leaders to work out the details of the burgeoning permit bank program.

In addition to removing the home port population qualifier, the Portland Fish Exchange letter supported increasing the size cap for vessels allowed in the program from 45 feet to 65 feet.

“The initial rationale [for the permit bank] was to provide opportunities for smaller boats with limited fishing history, that were finding it difficult to get established in the industry,” National Marine Fisheries Service spokeswoman Marjorie Mooney-Seus told the Bangor Daily News. “This was set up initially in response to individual concerns by smaller boats and new entrants, younger fishermen who wanted to get into the business.”

Terry Stockwell of the Maine Department of Marine Resources said negotiations with NOAA fisheries officials over proposed changes to the memorandum of agreement governing the permit bank program, including those called for by the Portland Fish Exchange, will take place over the remaining months of 2011.

Stockwell said about 20 vessels were permitted using the bank this year, and the department will award another wave of federal fishing permits next March. But he said he hopes the final memorandum language will be cemented by the end of the calendar year so fishermen can make their 2012 business plans accordingly.

“We’re looking for amendments to make it more flexible for the industry and less administratively burdensome to us,” Stockwell said Thursday. “They’ve been very receptive to accommodating our requests to amend the MOA. We haven’t come to a final resolution with the agency yet, but it’s really just case of us all being busy people.”

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