Left to right, Alan Caron, Terry Hayes, Janet Mills, Shawn Moody (Photo courtesy Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association)
Left to right, Alan Caron, Terry Hayes, Janet Mills, Shawn Moody (Photo courtesy Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association)

Candidates for governor fielded questions about the regulation, promotion, protection and future of Maine’s seafood industry at an October 4 forum in Rockland that spanned topics from working waterfronts and right whales to renewable energy and climate change.

Independents Alan Caron and Terry Hayes, Democrat Janet Mills and Republican Shawn Moody were all in attendance as veteran seafood industry journalist James Wright moderated the event at The Strand.

Written questions for the candidates came from Wright, audience members and industry groups in attendance including the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, which organized the event, as well as the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, Maine Lobstermen’s Union, Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association, Alewife Harvesters of Maine, and the Maine Aquaculture Association.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association asked candidates about impacts on those who catch the state’s iconic seafood in the face of new proposals to protect right whales.

Mills said “very controversial hearings” are taking place that would be “extremely restrictive of the lobster fishermen here in Maine.” She said that proposals from researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and others to close the lobster season for periods, reduce the number of traps and transition to ropeless gear were unfounded.

“Not one right whale found deceased or injured has been found to be connected with fishing gear in the Gulf of Maine from Maine fishermen,” Mills said, adding that environmental and other undetermined factors may contribute to whale mortality. “Until they find causation, until they pin this on fishing gear in the state of Maine, from state of Maine fishermen, they shouldn’t be imposing these kinds of limits and restrictions, which could be devastating to the fishing industry in Maine.”

Moody called the issue a “perfect example” of “scientific evidence that isn’t necessarily supported with historical data.” He said there is funding and pressure for action by groups “that aren’t going to be supported, aren’t going to be represented by, the people who are going to be pulling the traps up every day.”

He also mocked the idea of ropeless traps. “You can’t say that with a straight face,” Moody said, conjuring an image of a flotation device that pops to the surface to indicate the need to check a trap. “It’s not feasible, it’s not practical, it’s not even commonsensical.”

Caron said unknown factors have affected the right whale population, but a “frustration effort” to change tactics in the fishing industry would be misguided. “Some issues we know a lot. This issue we don’t know very much at all.” He said he would “put a pause button” on new regulations until the causes are understood. Hayes said there needs to be a discussion of gear used by Maine and Canadian lobstermen to highlight changes made to prevent harm to right whales.

Asked about the effect of offshore wind farms on the seafood industry, Moody said the state should consider all renewable energy sources as possible investments, rather than giving in to the tendency to “roll out the red carpet” to emerging businesses and technologies.

Caron said “the single most important thing we can do as a state is to commit ourselves to energy independence.” He proposed a 30-year plan stressing the importance of solar energy as an opportunity for Maine, adding he also did not want to close the door on offshore wind, while respecting its impact on the fishing industry. Caron also said Mainers should “run, don’t walk” from anyone suggesting he or she can grow Maine’s economy without understanding climate change.

“Because it is impossible to understand our future if you don’t get that there’s a big change happening in the environment,” he said. “There’s no scientific debate on climate change. There’s only a political debate, and that political debate has held us back for a decade or more from doing the thinking and the work that we have to do.”

Mills noted there are about 156 gigawatts of potential wind power within 50 miles of Maine’s shore and suggested the fishing industry should be a partner in the permitting and location process for offshore wind farms with state and federal partners. “We can designate those places together with minimal impact on various fisheries,” she said.

Hayes said there needs to be an effort to find benefit in the “competing assets” presented by Maine’s coastline as a source of wind energy and a resource for fishing. She also mentioned research by organizations such as the Gulf of Maine Research Institute as a way to prepare for future developments including climate change.

“Aquaculture is a way of generating seafood resources where we control the environment, not where the environment controls the outcome,” Hayes said. “We can maintain this resource and this part of our economy even as climate change changes our geography considerably and changes the temperature in the oceans.”

Moody said the state needs to heed scientific research, but should temper the response. “We can’t overreact,” he said. “I believe that the industry itself will navigate the channels. We’ve just got to make sure that government doesn’t impede that forward progress or that adaptability.”

Mills said she supports initiatives to aid commercial fishing wharves, including easements and land purchases through the Land for Maine’s Future program, a 1987 initiative to use public bond money to acquire properties of significance to the state. Hayes also noted the program’s contribution, pointing to about 26 coastal locations where investments for commercial fishing have been made, and said she is interested in finding “the gaps” where the program could do more.

Part of the allure for tourists is seeing lobster and fish harvesters at work, Moody said, making waterfronts a priority for both fishing and promoting the state. Caron suggested Maine needs a “mini-port strategy” — akin to a three-port shipping strategy promoted by former Governor Joe Brennan — through which every waterfront in Maine has commercial and public access.

Mills had to leave the forum early, and Caron was the only remaining candidate who would commit to providing state matching funds to bolster marketing efforts for Maine’s lobster industry. Caron said Maine has an “enormously powerful brand” for quality and trustworthiness. “We need to be famous for what we make and what we do,” he said.

Hayes said she would need to know how marketing would be conducted before agreeing to “throw money at it,” while Moody said marketing efforts should be “dynamic and not static” in response to industry needs.