Fishermen Meet New DMR Commissioner

by Laurie Schreiber

Maine Fishermen's Forum, Rockport, March 4, 2011. Departmentof Marine Resources Commissioner Norman Olsen (ctr.) listening to comments in the lobby outside the packed meeting room where he spoke. Olsen did a lot of listening at the Forum, his first large industry meeting since being appointed by Governor Lepage.   ©Photo by Sam Murfitt

Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Norman Olsen said he spent his first month on his new job swept up by issues related to the early closure of the shrimp fishery.

In his first meetings at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum on March 3-5, Olsen proved ready to tackle all other marine-related matters.

At the annual meeting of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association on March 4, and shortly afterward in a special “Meet the New DMR Commissioner” session that also hosted Governor Paul LePage, fishermen peppered Olsen with questions that ranged across the lobster, groundfish, scallop, shrimp and herring fisheries, and highlighted concerns about topics as diverse as the import of foreign bait, the scallop closure program, wasted bycatch, and the ability of Maine’s traditional fisheries to survive in an increasingly corporatized industry.

Overall, Olsen said he favored transparency in the decision-making and policy-setting process and said he looked forward to a mutual dialogue with the fishing industry to pinpoint problems and come up with answers.

“I’ll work with all of you and give you all a straight answer,” he said.

To illustrate his approach of mutual engagement, Olsen had all of his personnel from the DMR and from Maine Marine Patrol attend the session. He said he wanted fishermen to get to know the people who are involved in marine resource regulation and enforcement.

“You don’t really need to know me so much as you need to know the people you engage with every day,” he told the crowd of about 300 people who attended the session. “There’s a tremendous amount of dehumanizing going on. ‘That son of a bitch on the other end of the phone who won’t give me my permit.’ ‘The guy who doesn’t write a letter back to answer my question.’ They’re living people, too, who are trying to do their job – just like you are.”

Olsen had a 26-year career with the U.S. State Department, serving in hot spots such as Israel, the Gaza Strip and Kosovo, and in Washington, D.C. as associate coordinator for counter-terrorism. He was previously a commercial fisherman who started lobstering at age 12 and went on to pursue many types of Maine fisheries, and became a member of the New England Fisheries Management Council.

In some of his discussions regarding current issues, Olsen referenced that earlier era in the industry, recalling, for example, a time when Maine’s groundfishing fleet thrived.

“Maine seafood was all over the world,” he said. “Our military ate redfish and our military ate whiting. It was a great industry and a lot of people advanced their lives and sent their kids to college.”

Olsen called for prudent and rational fishery regulation that continues to build on the state’s industry-driven management system, promotes the state’s traditionally diverse fleet, and maintains community infrastructure.

At the same time, he said, it will be important to examine emerging issues and to make sure that traditional management approaches don’t hold back the industry. He proposed, for example, that it might be time to re-examine the state’s ban on landing lobsters caught by groundfish draggers, because landings by groundfishermen could help to re-invigorate Maine ports, he said. He also said he believes in the catch-share system as a way to bring certaintyand predictability to the groundfishery.

He encouraged fishermen to view the success of scallop resource management as an opportunity to build bigger boats for offshore fishing rather than as a threat to the small-boat fleet. He said that the limited-entry system in the lobster fishery is unfair, and he called for an approach to limited entry that doesn’t involve long waiting lists.

“I want to see a complete system from beginning to end, so that everybody knows on the day it’s implemented whether they’re in, how they can get in, how they can get out, how they can transfer a permit,” he said.

Olsen said the lobster industry is currently dealing with “a tremendous overlay of regulations” which need to be looked at.

“The regulations are in because the industry wanted them in for specific purposes, and how you cut through that is…take out the ones that are unnecessary, that are not supported by industry, and proceed on that course. This is the system that I came back and found. When I stopped lobstering, our licenses were $25, there was no trap limit, no zones, and, in 1975, we had 2 million traps in the water. Now you’ve got all these regulations, all this limited entry, all these limits, and 3.3 million traps in the water. That’s kind of a disconnect for me. So we’ll be looking at all of it, without trying to dismember it ,but listening to people like you. But there has to be some sort of industry negotiation and consensus.”

Olsen said that new issues on the immediate horizon include exclusion zones around offshore wind farms and the protection of states’ rights in the federal government’s new National Policy for the Stewardship of the Ocean, Coasts, and Great Lakes.

“You all need to pay close attention to that,” Olsen said. “I’ll be working with your leadership to make sure you have the information… I worked in federal government for 26 years, you have to be there when the parameters of the discussion are being set, not after they’re set.”

Toward the end of the session, fisherman John Williams, who was on the committee that interviewed Olsen for the top DMR job, took note of the somewhat embattled atmosphere in the room.

“There’s an old saying that, if you put a hundred fishermen in a room, the only way you can get a unanimous vote is to hang the guy who doesn’t show up,” Williams said. “I think your experience in the Mideast is the one that pushed us over to giving you the job. This industry is about as hostile as they are.”


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