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July 11, 2016 On the record

One on One with Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher

Photo / TIM GREENWAY Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, addresses issues ranging from the booming elver industry to the three-year closure of the shrimp fishery.

In the five years since Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher took on the agency's leadership, he and his team have played a central role in making the state's commercial fishing industry stronger.

The industry reached an all-time high in value in 2015, earning harvesters just over $616.55 million, a gain of $33 million over the previous record set in 2014. With the economic impact on dealers and related business, the industry has an overall value of closer to $2 billion. Maine products range from the flagship lobster to the elver, or baby eel, which fetched $1,435 a pound in the recent season.

Mainebiz recently talked with Keliher about some of the challenges facing the state's commercial fishing industry. An edited transcript follows.

Mainebiz: What are today's pressing concerns for the industry?

Pat Keliher: The changing ocean environment is a major challenge. Water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine are rising and, while it's been associated with the presence of new commercial species like black sea bass, it's also been linked to invasive species like green crabs, the decline of species like shrimp and a shift of Maine's lobster resource up the coast. I'd say that challenge is only going to grow.

MB: How has DMR addressed sustainability in the lobster industry?

PK: We're planning to invest more department resources in research to ensure we're not only able to effectively monitor Maine's valuable lobster resource but also to predict changes that impact the resource and allow us to put forward adaptive management and regulatory changes. As a result of a motion I made in April, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's lobster technical committee will conduct an in-depth analysis of various issues associated with lobster stocks, ocean currents and management measures in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank. The goal of this research is to better understand and adapt to the changing ocean environment.

MB: If the lobster population is shifting up the coast, will the fishery remain viable for Maine?

PK: I'm confident that Maine's lobster fishery will remain viable, because Maine fishermen remain committed to conservation and sustainable harvesting practices. The current historic landings are not likely to last, so we must improve our ability to predict and adapt to change.

MB: In what ways is the DMR dealing with the shutdown of the shrimp fishery?

PK: For the past two years, we've participated in a cooperative shrimp sampling program that, even as the fishery is closed, allows managers to continue to gather important data that will help inform future management decisions. I also plan to bring together a small, geographically diverse group of industry members, including trappers and trawlers, to provide input on next steps in the fishery.

MB: Does aquaculture play a role as an alternative for fishermen?

PK: Aquaculture provides significant opportunity. Currently, all leases and licenses combined take up just over 1,300 acres. The total area could fit inside Rockland Harbor. So the potential is substantial in terms of available area. There's also growing interest among investors looking to meet increasing worldwide demand for food cultivated in Maine's pristine marine environment.

MB: How has DMR managed cuts in both funding and staff?

PK: We work hard to keep costs down through efficiencies while continuing to maintain a high level of quality in the work we do and the customer service we provide. One way we've been able to accomplish this is through the implementation of innovative technology — namely the swipe-card system [which ensures that catches are properly tracked and minimizes poaching]. This system has allowed us to more cost effectively and efficiently manage our marine resources. Through cost savings, we've also been able to commit additional resources to scientific research, which will help us and our constituents plan for and adapt to environmental changes.

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