ROCKPORT, Maine — The state needs to work harder to market Maine seafood as a way to help the industry prosper, Gov. Paul LePage said during an address Friday at the 37th annual Maine Fishermen’s Forum.
The governor recounted a story of when he was in Florida a couple months ago for a wedding and stopped at a restaurant that was touting Maine lobster as its special of the day. LePage said he asked the restaurant owner where in Maine the lobsters came from and the owner admitted that the seafood actually came from Massachusetts.
“He said they were not from Maine but who knows what Massachusetts lobster is,” LePage said.
The governor said when he returned from Florida he asked his office’s legal department to see if there is any legal action the state could take to prevent lobsters from elsewhere being falsely marketed as coming from Maine.
He said that this matter is important because proper marketing can increase the value of a product.
“We have to work harder to make sure there is no substitute for Maine lobster or Maine fish,” LePage said. “We will do everything we can do on our part to make sure that lobster fishermen, when they land their lobster, get credit for it being Maine lobster.”
The lobster industry plays a major role in tourism and the hospitality industry.
The value of last year’s Maine lobster catch was $331 million with landings reaching 100 million pounds statewide for the first time. But, LePage noted, if the per-pound price was as high as it had been in 2005, the catch would have been worth another $150 million.
“The fishing industry in Maine is more than just jobs, it’s an economic engine, but more importantly than that it’s a lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle with a great heritage in Maine that we must make sure is made to prosper,” LePage said.
The governor cited Linda Bean’s efforts to market Maine lobster as being what is needed to get more money for harvesters.
He said government can’t tax and regulate the state’s way to prosperity.
Glen Libby of Port Clyde praised the governor’s administration for removing red tape in the efforts of local fishermen to add value to locally caught seafood by processing and marketing.
“We’ve called it red tape, but quite frankly what it really is is a change of attitude,” LePage said. “We have a can-do attitude instead of no we can’t do that. It boils down really to a willingness to work with the private sector. We’re not getting rid of regulations, we’re helping you get through them much quicker.”
The governor said while the seafood industry in Maine has been great on the lobster side it has not been so great in other areas.
He also cited the accomplishments of the administration in helping the seafood industry. That included opening up of 2,000 acres of prime shellfish flats through the work of the Maine Departments of Marine Resources and Health and Human Services.
LePage also said the state purchased six groundfish permits with a total quota of 180,000 pounds in an effort to help rebuild the groundfishing industry in Maine. He said the Portland Fish Exchange has seen an increase in fish being handled.
The governor said that for progress to be made, the state needs the participation of fishermen.
“The only way that the fishing industry can prosper is with the fishermen having a say in the direction we go.”
He said the industry faces challenges such as rising fuel prices, which is why last year the state approved a law to remove the fuel tax for commercial fishing vessels.
The governor said he has directed Patrick Keliher, new commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, to work with the industry to reduce their costs.
LePage also agreed that access to capital for businesses was a challenge. He said Maine is broke and that it will take time for the state to attract capital.
The governor closed his remarks by making a political pitch to the 200-plus fishermen in the room.
“Come November, we’re going to have a real choice. We have the ability to remain a welfare state with entitlements and grow our entitlements or we have a choice of reviving and renewing the American dream,” LePage said.
Keliher followed LePage to the podium and addressed a variety of issues.
“The vision is coastal prosperity at the end of the day,” Keliher said. “We don’t want two or three New Bedfords. We want healthy coastal communities.”
He said this needs to be achieved by working with all parts of the industry and developing a management plan to avoid having federal policies affect the state’s fisheries.
He said the proposed classification of certain species as endangered could have devastating impacts on certain industries. Keliher said the administration will oppose the addition of river herring to the endangered list.
The annual fishermen’s forum continues Saturday at the Samoset Resort. A full schedule is at www.mainefishermensforum.org.