ROCKPORT, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage, speaking Friday at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum, said Maine needs more seafood processing capacity and fewer fishing regulations if its businesses and people are going to prosper.
He took particular aim at the federal government, which he said is “trying to get us off the water.” If Maine is going to have jobs to offer to young people now in school, he said, the federal government needs to limit its control of Maine’s seafood industry and to let the state do the rest.
“Too many of our kids are leaving the state,” he said. “We have to stop that exodus. We have to convince the federal government that we’re not hurting our resource, we’re sustaining it.”
LePage cited increased harvests last year in the state’s lobster and salmon aquaculture industries, but said increased catches are not enough. Having Maine’s seafood processing industry expand, he said, is one way to help create job opportunities and business growth. As it is, too much of the fish and shellfish that are harvested in the state is shipped out of Maine — to Canada, in particular — before it is processed into more valuable products.
“We need to have processors so we can have the added value placed on the product in Maine,” LePage said. “We need to bring the value back here.”
Without going into specifics of how it might be done, the governor said he also understands the need for Maine to better market its seafood, to help boost the worldwide demand for commercial marine species harvested in the state.
“That has been heard loud and clear,” he said.
When it comes to federal laws aimed at protecting endangered whales, LePage said that he’s asked his new commissioner for the state Department of Marine Resources, Norman Olsen, to look into the effect an exemption line for whale-safe lobster fishing gear is having on fishermen.
In 2009, federal regulators began requiring lobstermen who set gear offshore to use sinking ground lines, in the hope that the rule would help prevent endangered whales from getting tangled in fishing ropes.
Some fishermen have complained that the boundary — which runs approximately three miles offshore and indicates where they have to use the more expensive whale-safe gear and where they don’t — is arbitrary and has complicated the fishing habits of lobstermen who are used to setting their gear in particular areas.
LePage said that, when it comes to his priorities, he is focused on helping to preserve the livelihoods of fishermen.
“I’m working for the people of Maine, not the whales of Maine,” LePage said.
Olsen later tried to clarify LePage’s comment, saying that the governor wants to avoid ineffective regulations that adversely affect people without helping whales.
“He’s fully on board,” Olsen said, referring to the federal government’s intent to protect whales. “I’m confident the governor wants to protect marine mammals as much as anybody.”
Dr. Moira Brown, a researcher with New England Aquarium, was at the forum Friday and later said she had heard about LePage’s comment. She said the governor should remember that whales have a positive economic impact on the state, in particular for whale-watch boat operators.
“The whales are really important for tourism,” Brown said.
Plus, she added, the whales are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, making them the responsibility of the federal government and, consequently, the whole country.
“They are not just Maine’s whales,” she said.
Also in his morning remarks, LePage said that when it comes to federal regulations, Maine’s fishing industry is similar to others based in natural resources, such as forest products and farming. All these industries, and the private sector as a whole, need to be encouraged and supported from a regulatory point of view if they are going to be more profitable and provide more employment opportunities, he said.
“Anybody [who] tells you any different is blowing smoke,” he said. “We as a state will not prosper until the private sector prospers.”
Despite his pro-business comments, LePage criticized one industry in Maine that employs hundreds of people. Recounting a recent conversation he had with a state senator whom he declined to identify, LePage repeated a comment he said the senator had made to him. “Buying a Maine daily newspaper is like paying someone to lie to you,” the governor said, smiling as he elicited some chuckles from more than 100 people listening to his 30-minute talk.
“Frankly folks, until they get more objective, they’re going to get as much wrath from me as they give me,” LePage added.