The 37th annual Maine Fishermen's Forum took place last week at the Samoset Resort in Rockport, and once again served up an opportunity to look, listen and talk about the state of Maine's fishing industries. Fishermen, federal and state scientists, seafood dealers, environmental organizations, state legislators, and individuals working in the state's many different fisheries industries ate, drank and argued together in a noisy but cheerful atmosphere.

Governor LePage addressed forum-goers on Friday morning before introducing the new Department of Marine Resources (DMR) commissioner, Patrick Keliher, who was confirmed in late January. The governor said his administration is committed to moving the fishing industries of the state forward: "They are economic engines, but more than that they are a lifestyle." He called for better identification and marketing of Maine's lobsters in the face of mislabeling by other states and Canadian provinces.

Commissioner Keliher said DMR's mission is to "sustain the resources and our coastal communities." To do that, he intends to emphasize proactive planning in order to forestall any abrupt dips or changes in the state's fishing industries. "We have a lot we can do to control our own destiny," he said.

Finding ways to boost the state's groundfishing fleet continues as a DMR priority, according to Keliher, who said that he is encouraged by the six groundfishing permits now contained in the state's permit bank. When asked about the possibility that the state will allow groundfish draggers to land lobsters caught in their nets in Maine - a bone of great contention last year - Keliher said, "That conversation has to happen as part of the equation to address issues in the groundfish industry. But it is a political question. I challenge the fishermen and the lobster industry to have that conversation."

Shrimp Fishery

The abrupt closure of the shrimp season in mid-February brought a few angry questions from shrimp fishermen. They wanted to know what were the agency's plans to maintain that lucrative but cyclical fishery. "In the long run, do we want to see just a few boats catching [shrimp]? No. We don't want to have two or three New Bedfords in the state and nothing else. We want to grow the resource and retain access for the fleet. So we need to figure out the right amount of participants in a fishery like shrimp," Keliher responded.

NMFS's Difficulties

Later that day top officials of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) spoke in a panel discussion. NMFS has been beset with problems in its Northeast region's enforcement and science offices for the past several years. Samuel Rauch, the acting administrator of NMFS, hastened to assure the audience that things had changed. He introduced Bill Karp, acting director of Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts; Bruce Buckson, the new head of NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement; and

Dan Morris, NMFS acting regional administrator for the Northeast.

"The number-one challenge for the agency is communications," Morris admitted. "We need better ways of communicating what is happening and getting involvement in problem-solving. The second challenge is money. And the third is improving data analysis and timeliness."

Karp, who spent the past 25 years in NMFS's Alaska Science Center, commented on the adversarial relationship between New England fishermen and NMFS officials. "Overall, there is more interest in the work of the Science Center here than in Alaska," he said. "But there's a less collegial role here between scientists and the industry. Part of that is due to the shape of the resource. In Alaska the TACs [Total Allowable Catch] for most species have stayed at consistent levels over the years and allowed industry to plan. That's not been so here." There were vigorous nods from the audience.
Scallop Fishery, Closures

On Saturday the hot topic of the morning concerned the scallop fishery. The state closed 13 different areas of the coast to all scalloping in 2009, when landings indicated scallops were overharvested. Those areas are due to be reopened this spring. Since then, fishermen have sputtered along; this year, the fishery in East and South bays in Cobscook Bay was closed abruptly after two weeks when DMR found that sublegal (less than four inches in size) scallops were dominant and the harvestable scallops contained small meats.

Kevin Kelly, a DMR scientist at the agency's Boothbay Harbor laboratory, conducts surveys of the state's scallop beds. The surveys rotate among Cobscook Bay, eastern and western Maine each year. In 2010 Kelly surveyed all of Cobscook Bay; in the fall of 2011 he surveyed the closed areas along the coast. "We want to know how many scallops are above or below the minimum size and what the scallop density is in the closed areas," he said.

What he found in most of the closed areas is that the density of scallops increased greatly and the actual number of scallops above the harvestable size increased as well. In parts of Cobscook Bay the increase was stunning.

"In Wayne Bay there were always a good number of sublegals but not many of harvestable size," Kelly said. "But when we went there in 2010, one year after the closure, the seed density was way up as well as the harvestable size." In the Whiting Bay/Dennys Bay area of Cobscook Bay, Kelly reported that harvestable scallops increased from 8,000 pounds in 2009 to 45,000 pounds in 2010. But in the area off Jonesport known as The Reach, Kelly found abundant beds of seed and sublegal-size scallops but not many harvestable scallops. "That's a place we might consider not reopening because there's so much small seed there," he said.

Scallopers in the room said they want to get to those beds sooner, rather than later. One man said that the sea scallops found along the Maine coast don't live very long after they reach sexual maturity and so should be harvested before they die a natural death. Another suggested that seeding flats with seed from other portions of the coast could increase the overall stock, allowing more places to remain open. Deborah Hart, a scallop biolgist from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, said that genetic testing has shown that some scallop populations in Maine, such as those found in Cobscook Bay, are genetically distinct, so transplanting seed could have unforeseen consequences.

Togue Brawn, a former DMR staff member and now owner of Maine Dayboat Scallops, spoke about the future. "There's a possibility of long-term profit here. You guys could all be making a lot more money than you are now. We need to increase the value [of Maine scallops]. The longer you leave them, the better off you are. You should stay the course." Trisha De Graaf, groundfish resource management coordinator at DMR, echoed Brawn's words. "Continue the closed-areas effort," she said. "Some places should be reopened. Others probably should stay closed one more year. We should also consider rotational closures, opening different places each year."

Offshore Wind Development

Scallop management was just one of the contentious topics on Saturday's agenda. A discussion of Maine's ocean wind energy efforts took place for three hours Saturday afternoon. Officials from the Department of Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) attended as well as Kari Hege Mork, stakeholder manager at Statoil, the Norwegian energy company that is considering constructing a floating wind turbine farm in federal waters south of Boothbay Harbor.

Many of the questions from the audience to the panelists concerned the Statoil project. Mork said that her company had successfully installed one floating wind turbine in Norwegian waters and a second, non-floating set of turbines in United Kingdom waters. "In Norway, the authorities determined where and what could be in the water," Mork said. "In the U.K., there were other considerations, of scenic areas, fishing areas, shipping lanes. We had to define the rules of how to operate together."

When asked the specific size of the ultimate wind installation planned for Maine, Mork said, "We have no plans for a big commercial park at the moment, but it is an obvious goal for the future, in 2020." She noted that currently the most powerful offshore wind turbine generates 3 megawatts (MW) of electricity, though there are 4- and 5-MW turbines under development. "So to generate 300 MW, we would install approximately100 turbines," she said.

The company has applied to BOEM for a lease on 22 square miles of the Gulf of Maine but, said Mork, has no intention of using all that space. "Ultimately, we will need perhaps four square miles," she said. As was the case in the United Kingdom, Mork explained that there will be no exclusion zone around the undersea cables that bring power from the turbines to the land. The only prohibition to vessels will be around the 600-meter anchor lines that will extend in several directions from the wind turbine tower itself.

A young lobsterman asked Darryl Francois, director of the project and coordination branch of BOEM. "What will happen if this project displaces me from my traditional grounds?" For a long moment the panel was silent. "BOEM needs information about where your gear is," Francois finally said.