Department of Marine Resources (DMR) Commissioner Patrick Keliher, 52, chooses his words carefully. Carefully, that
is, until he gets excited about his topic. “I love this job!” he said emphatically during a recent interview. Fortunately, Keliher will continue in the job that he so enjoys following confirmation of his nomination by the Maine Legislature in late January.
Keliher was appointed by former governor Paul LePage in 2012 to the top spot at the agency. Prior to that, Keliher had been the director of the Bureau of Sea Run Fisheries for five years. Keliher took over DMR during a year of unprecedented warmth in the Gulf of Maine, which triggered an early lobster shedding season and a precipitous decline in price. Since then other crises have broken out every year: herring management, right whale protections, deep sea coral zone closures, or cod by-catch related to lobstering are just some of the more contentious topics.
“I knew this job had a tremendous amount of complexity,” Keliher said. “There are always surprises popping up. The price crash in 2012 and the whale rules that are coming are examples. My preference, when time allows, is to communicate the issues to the fishing industry and get input from them prior to the decision-making process. It all depends on what we have for time.”
DMR today is different than it was when Keliher first took the helm. Under the former administration, which emphasized downsizing government, Keliher had to reduce the number of positions in the agency. He was able to reduce his staff, from 202 to 172 people. He also reorganized DMR to ensure that bureaus within the agency were integrated with each other, not isolated. “So we broke down the silos, allowing science staff to work on multiple species and to provide input more effectively into policy decisions. People are working on a breadth of issues now, not one single thing. It’s more challenging but also more interesting,” he said.
The effect of climate change in the Gulf of Maine is one of the challenges that the agency and Maine’s fishermen are facing together. Governor Mills made it clear in her inaugural address in January that her administration will focus on the issue within all state agencies. “There’s both good and bad with climate change in terms of marine species,” Keliher noted. “For lobster, it’s been good. The question of the resiliency of the lobster stock, however, is a high priority. That’s part of the work started at the Commission [Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission], look at how standardizing management measures across Lobster Conservation Management Areas can help protect spawning stock biomass.”
Another challenge from climate change is the effect of the rising sea level on coastal communities. When former governor LePage dissolved the State Planning Office in 2012, the state Coastal Program moved to the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. In 2017, the federally-funded program became part of DMR. The move gives DMR yet another mandate. “One of the biggest issues we need to focus on is coastal resiliency in the face of sea level rise. Look at Port Clyde, for example. The dock [at the Port Clyde Fishermen’s Cooperative] that was rebuilt with a Working Waterfront grant is underwater on a moon tide. We have to assist and find grant opportunities and funding around infrastructure as it ages and needs to be rebuilt,” Keliher said.
But the issue that is on the minds of most lobstermen is possible new protections for endangered North Atlantic right whales. The population took a serious hit in 2017 when 18 whales died, primarily in Canadian waters. In response, several environmental organizations petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) under two federal laws, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), to take steps to protect the population while in U.S. waters. “The Take Reduction Team, a consortium of public and private agencies and organizations, will meet in March to discuss ways to reduce serious injury and mortality under the MMPA. Through the ESA, NMFS will release a new Biological Opinion on the lobster fishery,” Keliher said. A Biological Opinion was issued in 2014, which found that the lobster fishery did not jeopardize right whales. According to Keliher, it’s likely that the new Opinion will be the opposite when NMFS concludes its analysis.
Simultaneously, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), on which Keliher presides as chairman this year, set up a technical committee that is looking at a reduction in endlines as a preemptive measure. “They are discussing a percent reduction in endlines to mitigate risk [to the whales] and influence the Biological Opinion. If ASMFC doesn’t act, the feds will. Once we know what direction the Commission may take, we will start having conversations with industry,” Keliher explained.
Many lobstermen protest that right whales are not traversing the Gulf of Maine any longer and thus the threat from lobster gear is practically nonexistent. The whales, however, do pass through offshore waters. They were found off Nantucket in January, heading for their feeding grounds in Massachusetts Bay where they spend the winter and early spring months. “They are in the Area 1 lobster fishery. There’s a risk of entanglement. The federal government is not going to let this go,” Keliher cautioned. “There’s going to be change. We [DMR] are taking a deep dive into the data and laws to ensure that we are ready for a contentious conversation. My role will be to facilitate change to protect the economic viability of the fishery and protect right whales.”
In addition, a court case brought last year by the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental organizations to force NMFS to institute new restrictions on the lobster fishery to protect right whales is proceeding in U.S. district court in Washington, D.C. The environmental organizations contend that NMFS has violated the ESA by allowing whales to become entangled and die due to fishing gear and are asking the judge to set a time by which the agency must take corrective action. “The lawsuit is a wild card,” Keliher admitted. “The DMR is working the the Attorney General’s office to submit an amicus brief. That will allow information to be documented within the court case.”
With dilemmas like these as well as the crises that seem to occur every year, such as a reduction in the herring quota or battles over aquaculture leases, one would think that Keliher’s enthusiasm for his job might be wearing a bit thin. On the contrary. “I love this job because of the people. We have a staff with a diversity of skills and experience. Did you know we have one of the youngest staffs in state agencies now?” Keliher said. “And I love talking with fishermen. The support I got [from eight state fishing organizations] to stay in this job was incredibly humbling. I had no idea. Even a couple of fishermen whose licenses I suspended wrote letters of support.” Keliher paused. “The hardest thing is to suspend someone’s license. You have to give everyone a fair shake, give everyone the time to talk.”