Guest Column: New state budget strengthens DMR staff, programs

After a year of challenges, I am glad to write with some good news. At the start of the pandemic, I was worried what decreasing state revenues might mean for DMR and the work we are able to do on behalf of Maine’s commercial fishing and seafood businesses. Like other Commissioners, I prepared for budget reductions and anticipated unavoidable layoffs. At the time, I could never have predicted that the budget that ultimately passed this summer would instead strengthen this agency in very significant ways.

With tremendous support from Governor Mills and the Marine Resources Committee, I am pleased to report that we have been authorized to add or fill positions within our agency to advance our work on science, policy, and enforcement.

In the Bureau of Marine Science, we’ll have more capacity to work on whale research to improve our ability to engage in and inform federal processes aimed at protecting right whales. We will also have additional capacity to work on the research questions and monitoring associated with the development of offshore wind. And for the first time we will have dedicated staff working on white shark research.

Patrick Keliher is the Commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources (DMR Photo)

We are also adding a senior policy position that will provide policy support on both the topics of offshore wind as well as right whales. As with the Science Bureau staff, policy staff have done a tremendous job working on these topics, but with so much going on, they are stretched very thin. More resources to do this work are certainly warranted, given the importance of Maine’s commercial fishing industries.

The Bureau of Marine Patrol also received new General Fund support for two patrol positions that have been frozen due to lack of funding.

Also, for the first time ever, the Land for Maine’s Future program will be funded with General Fund dollars, rather than bond funds. As part of that process, the Legislature specified that at least $4 million be made available for Working Waterfront Access Protection Program (WWAPP) projects over the next four years. This a tremendous opportunity to protect more waterfront properties to ensure their continued availability to future generations of fishermen.

Governor Mills also developed a spending plan for the federal American Recovery Plan dollars that Maine will receive, which was approved by the Legislature. Some of the highlights from that Plan include funding for a new Patrol vessel capable of safely and effectively operating and enforcing fishing activity more than 40 miles offshore. There is also $10 million for a competitive grant program to support seafood dealers and processors in making infrastructure improvements and investments in their businesses that improve the economic resiliency of this sector. Several industry leaders came forward to support these and other pieces of the Plan important to the Department, and we are very grateful for the efforts they made to do that.

Finally, you may be aware that Congress has appropriated an additional $255 million in fisheries assistance funding. NOAA has allocated this money to individual states; Maine will receive $17.1 million. Eligible sectors include members of the commercial fishing industry, aquaculturists, seafood dealers and processors, and for-hire guides. These funds are subject to the same requirements as the first round of CARES Act funding including a 35% revenue loss to qualify to receive funds. DMR is still working on the development of a spend plan subject to NOAA’s review and approval but I am hopeful we can apply these funds in ways that will provide meaningful, long-term benefits to these sectors.

Whales

As you know, the final whale rule is expected to be published in September. I want once again to express my appreciation for all the hard work Maine’s lobstermen have done to inform these federal regulations.
The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), released in July, evaluates the biological, economic, and social impacts of alternatives in the soon-to-be-published final rule, including an alternative that NMFS prefers. One measure proposed in the draft regulation, a closure along the LMA1/3 line, is listed as a preferred alternative. We continue to have concerns about the data used to support this closure and the conservation benefits of the closure given documented shifts in right whale distribution.

One positive to highlight from the FEIS is the inclusion of conservation equivalencies that we worked hard for with input from Maine’s lobster industry. Specifically, the recommendation would allow flexibility in situations where the number of traps per trawl require two buoy lines to use only one buoy line if half the number of traps per trawl are used. This is an important consideration since many fishermen shared concerns that the longer trawls outlined in the draft regulation will pose a threat to their safety.

Additionally, measures from each Zone’s conservation equivalency proposal for areas within 12 miles from shore appear in the preferred alternative. This is important recognition by NOAA that one size does not fit all along the Maine coast. Zones spent significant time developing these proposals and it is encouraging to see those efforts taken into account.

Marine Patrol

In addition to the new patrol vessel mentioned above, another new patrol vessel, funded through the DMR’s Joint Enforcement Agreement with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, will soon be christened. The P/V Endeavor, a 42-foot Calvin Beal, will replace the P/V Monitor, a 35-foot Young Brothers’, which was damaged by electrical fire in 2019. The new, larger vessel will serve officers well while hauling and inspecting lobster trap trawls and will accommodate a 14’ rigid hull inflatable (RHI) that can be carried on deck and used for at-sea boardings. Like the Monitor, the Endeavor will be assigned to Marine Patrol’s Section 2 (Freeport to Bremen) and homeported at the DMR’s West Boothbay Harbor pier.


The past year-and-a-half has been tough. While 2021 has brought you a good price and stabilizing markets, the pending whale regulations mean there will be rough waters ahead. I’m hopeful that before long we’ll be able to meet in person again to face those challenges head-on. In the meantime, stay well and stay safe.

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