AUGUSTA –The abrupt resignation of Norman Olsen as commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources on Wednesday left the LePage administration scrambling to mend fences on two fronts Thursday.
State officials, particularly the department’s new acting commissioner, worked to reassure Portland officials and members of the lobster industry of their commitment to both groups in light of scathing remarks by Olsen.
Olsen said Wednesday that he left in part because of a campaign against him by “special interests,” which apparently were members of the lobster industry who opposed some of the policy goals that he was pursuing and objected to his demeanor.
And in a written statement issued after his resignation, Olsen said Gov. Paul LePage had said he would no longer seek to collaborate with the city of Portland to bring groundfishing boats back to Maine.
“Portland was against him, (LePage) said, and we will not work with that city,” Olsen wrote. “Rather than work with Portland, (LePage) said, we’ll build a new port elsewhere.”
The publication of Olsen’s statement prompted Portland Mayor Nicholas Mavodones to issue a letter to LePage on Thursday requesting a meeting to discuss Olsen’s accusation.
“I trust you understand that regardless of the veracity of these statements, the public and the city of Portland need to be reassured that economic development in all Maine communities, both large and small, are a priority for the governor’s office,” Mavodones wrote.
Pat Keliher, who was named acting commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources on Wednesday, had to step away from a meeting of the Lobster Advisory Council on Thursday to take a call from Mavodones and reassure him of the state’s commitment to work with Portland to re-establish a Maine-based groundfishing industry.
A meeting between LePage, Mavodones and Keliher will be scheduled in the near future, according to a release from the governor’s office.
A LePage spokesman dismissed Olsen’s comments.
“It doesn’t make any sense; Portland is a hub for the fishery and we want to make sure that it is as competitive with other places as possible,” said Adam Fisher.
Many boats still operate out of Maine and in the state’s coastal waters but land their catch in Massachusetts. Landing in Massachusetts offers incentives including free berthing, free ice, cheaper diesel fuel and an opportunity to sell lobsters caught by dragging equipment.
Maine lawmakers did move in this session to eliminate the state tax on diesel fuel for commercial fishermen, in an attempt to make Maine a more viable option. But sales of by-catch lobsters are not allowed in Maine. Olsen’s frequent discussion of changing that policy was ill-received by Maine lobstermen.
“We are the most lucrative of all the marine industries. We are number one,” said Mike Dassett, a lobsterman who is secretary and treasurer of the Downeast Lobsterman’s Association. “And to say because they allow the landing of dragged lobsters somewhere else we should do it too, well, it doesn’t make sense.”
Dassett said he was “tickled pink” when he heard that Olsen had resigned.
Dassett, like many lobstermen, was alarmed by Olsen’s statements at the Fisherman’s Forum in March that he supported allowing by-catch lobsters to be landed in Maine, as well as possible changes to tag and license transfers.
Soon after the forum, a petition was circulated among members of the industry to express to the governor their disappointment with his commissioner. More than 100 people signed onto or sent their own copies of the petition to the governor’s office, which made the documents available on Thursday.
But the problem was more than just the policy differences, said Dassett.
“It was his way or no way, and he was very blunt, very arrogant,” he said of Olsen.
Hank Soule, who manages a sector of 40 groundfish boats from Maine to New Jersey, said Olsen’s departure is a blow to the groundfishing industry in Maine.
He said Olsen viewed the recovery of fish stocks in the Gulf of Maine as an opportunity to create hundreds of jobs in the state.
“It was a real surprise, a real shock to us that he resigned,” he said. “We are very disappointed. He was the right man for the job for all of Maine’s fishing industry.”
Pete McAleney, who owns New Meadows Lobster in Portland and is president of the Maine Import-Export Lobster Dealers’ Association, said he thinks it is unfair to say that people didn’t like Olsen.
“Norm seemed to be pretty good, I thought,” he said. “I knew they were going to have a lot of people who were upset, like you do on anything, but I truly thought things were going all right.”
McAleney said the issue of lobster by-catch will always exist, and he noted that previous commissioners have run into the same criticism.
“Anytime you get a dragger fisherman and a lobster fisherman in a room, look out. They both have valid points, that’s the problem,” he said. “It’s got to start with the governor. I want to know his response to what Norm said.”
LePage, however, was unavailable for interviews on Thursday. He did take questions from the public in Dover-Foxcroft as part of his latest Capitol for a Day event.
Keliher, the acting commissioner, used the Lobster Advisory Council meeting in Hallowell as an opportunity to try to assure the industry.
Keliher repeatedly said that while the issue of lobster by-catch is not off the list, it isn’t at the top, either.
“The governor has had that conversation with me directly, we’ve had the conversations with staff, and it’s part of what we need to look at,” he said. “But I don’t want industry to think that’s the first thing we’re going to throw out there.”
One council member asked him, given the issue’s long history, if even having it on the list isn’t “a slap and a kick in the face.”
Keliher said no.
“I’m just being honest,” he said. “I just need everybody engaged, both in this industry and from the groundfishing industry, to figure out how to move forward.”
MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell contributed to this report.
Rebekah Metzler — 620-7016