Arguably the most thankless job in state government is being the commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources. If you get five lobstermen together, they will have at least seven different opinions on what should be done for the future of the lobster industry in Maine. That has not deterred Commissioner Patrick Keliher from visiting fishing towns up and down the coast to hear directly from lobstermen this winter.
Keliher and a number of department staff spent the month of January on the road, traveling to more than a dozen towns to hold public forums on the state of the lobster fishery. This involved traveling to some of the most remote parts of the state, such as Vinalhaven and Swan’s Island, during the worst time of the year to be traveling to Maine’s offshore islands. While winter is not a great time to take a trip, it is the perfect time to meet with lobstermen, who generally spend more time on shore during the winter.
Last year was a tough one for the Maine lobster industry. Landings reached record levels in 2012, and prices reached lows not experienced in some time. All the while, the cost of bait and fuel continued to climb. This summer saw a glut of lobsters that precipitated a blockade of Maine product traveling to Canadian processing plants by Canadian lobstermen. Obviously, now is the time to have a conversation about the future of the industry, and the department is doing just that.
Keliher and department staff traveled the coast to discuss new approaches to lobster management and lobster marketing, including a tiered licensing system and enhanced lobster marketing funding by the industry. While not every lobsterman is going to support these proposals, those who took the time to attend one of the meetings with the commissioner will appreciate the department’s willingness to listen to members of the industry.
Those who attended the meeting on Vinalhaven did not hear a presentation of what the department is going to do (i.e., “We are from the government and we are here to help”). Rather, this was a conversation about what options are on the table and how they will affect individual lobstermen and their communities. Perhaps most important was the fact that these meetings did not involve political pandering where the industry was told what it wants to hear. Keliher was very candid in explaining that some solutions simply are not feasible.
The industry is fortunate to have a commissioner who has devoted this much effort to listening to those who work on the water and is willing to have an honest conversation about the future of lobstering in Maine, regardless of how difficult that honest conversation may be. Not everyone will be happy with the policy changes that result from these meetings, and I myself reserve the right to disagree with the department’s ultimate recommendations. Those who took the time to participate in this process, however, should be pleased with the time and effort the department has put in to actually listen to lobstermen.
Jason Day is a third-generation lobsterman from Vinalhaven and has been a fisherman his entire working life.