Maine fishing chief aims for growth

Posted Feb. 05, 2012, at 1:04 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 05, 2012, at 5:15 p.m.

HALLOWELL, Maine — Maine’s new top fisheries official is vowing to grow the economic value of the state’s oldest industry, commercial fishing, and the coastal communities that rely on the ocean.

The value of the state’s seafood harvest ranges from $350 million to $450 million each year and contributes three or four times that much in economic activity to Maine.

Patrick Keliher, who was sworn in Jan. 26 as the Department of Marine Resources commissioner, thinks those numbers can go up. While protecting the fisheries resources has to be the No. 1 priority — no fish, no fishermen — Keliher more can be done to promote seafood and give fishermen flexibility so they can maximize the value of their catch.

While the value of the catch typically tops $400 million, there is no price tag to measure the industry’s value to Maine, he said.

“If the fishing industry goes away, our coast looks totally different,” he said in an interview in his office in Hallowell. “Our state can’t afford to lose this industry. We are directly linked to coastal tourism. People come to the small coastal villages to see lobster boats tied up, to see them going in and out, to see the lobster traps, to see draggers come back in with sea gulls chasing them as they prepare to unload fish.

“Those are all part of that coastal fabric that is linked back beyond the community to coastal tourism. It’s kind of that Maine mystique.”

As its name implies, the Department of Marine Resources oversees the state’s ocean resources for which Maine is well-known, from lobster, scallops and clams to striped bass to pen-raised salmon and shellfish. Lesser-known species include periwinkles, bloodworms and baby eels.

Keliher, 45, has been with the department for four years and has been acting commissioner since July when he took over after former Commissioner Norman Olsen resigned in a public dust-up, claiming he didn’t have the support of Gov. Paul LePage.

In nominating Keliher to the job permanently, LePage expressed confidence he could balance “our need to create and sustain jobs while protecting Maine’s numerous marine resources” and would focus on areas that have the biggest economic bang.

Keliher grew up in Gardiner and spent summers on Cliff Island in Casco Bay, helping his cousins pull lobster traps. In his career, he has been executive director of the Atlantic Salmon Commission, which was later rolled into the DMR, and head of the department’s Bureau of Sea Run Fisheries and Habitat.

As commissioner, Keliher oversees a department with a $20 million budget and fewer than 200 employees. The state has more than 9,000 active fishermen and 3,500 licensed seafood dealers.

The focus on business development represents a shift for the department, Keliher said. He plans to soon hire somebody with business savvy and experience to market and maximize the value of the industry. In recent years, the department has acted primarily as a management agency without looking at the business side of fishing and identifying financial opportunity, he said.

“I’ve got all kinds of fisheries policy people, I’ve got all kinds of fisheries scientists,” Keliher said. “But we don’t have anybody that creates that link back to shore-side business side of commercial fishing, and you can’t have one without the other. We need the healthy fisheries, but we have to make sure we have a link back to the shore-side business that supports the sale and development of fish or lobsters or clams or anything else it might be.”

Fishermen would benefit from regulatory changes to give them more flexibility and the ability to switch from one fishery to another without onerous obstacles, he said. The state could also look at whether it would help to allow more local management options for particular species in particular areas, much the way municipalities now have local oversight over clam digging.

“Instead of telling fishermen you’ve got to catch all your groundfish on these days, let fishermen choose to catch them when they know the market price is up,” he said. “Just having that flexibility can make a big difference in the bottom line to somebody that’s running a groundfish boat that already has severe restrictions on them.”

The bright spot in Maine’s fishing industry in recent years has been lobster, which now represents about 70 percent of the total value of Maine’s fishing industry. The harvest last year topped 100 million pounds for the first time and scientists say the lobster population is healthy.

But there’s a danger in having so much of the value on a single species, Keliher said. It would be devastating if lobster falters, he said, making it all the more important to boost other fishing sectors, such as groundfish, scallops, and urchins, which have suffered from overfishing, volatility and strict regulations.

“We need diversity,” he said. “We need to find a way to bring diversity back into this industry.”

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