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Opinion

Date: 03/21/11

Maine fishermen deserve stronger voice in ocean policy

By Rep. Kimberly Olsen

One thing was perfectly clear at the annual Maine Fishermen's Forum in early March. The commercial fishermen who supply us with lobster, clams, scallops and fish lack a strong voice in determining the future use of Maine waters. They deserve a seat at the table when decisions are made that will impact their livelihoods, our fishing communities and the state's $448-million commercial fishing industry.

As a member of the Legislature's Marine Resources Committee, I attended the Fishermen's Forum, held in Rockport. My House district includes many commercial fishermen, including lobstermen, and I needed to know more about the new National Ocean Policy and its effects on my constituents - and by extension, on Maine's seafood industry.

One of the major presenters, a top fisheries consultant from Maryland, predicted that the new federal control of our marine environment will lead to even further restrictions on commercial fishing. In some cases, the restrictions could be severe.

The root cause of this growing conflict is the National Ocean Policy (NOP), which was created last year by an executive order of President Barack Obama. As an executive order, it is not technically a law. However, it harnesses more than 140 existing laws into a so-called U.S. Ocean Policy Coordination Framework. It also creates Regional Planning Bodies to decide how the ocean should be zoned and what activities should be permitted. (The NOP is considered so important to the president's agenda that it is run directly from the White House.)

The Regional Planning Body for New England's coastal waters, out to 200 miles, will have virtually total control. A major concern is that these Planning Bodies do not include local fishing organizations. For our area, the preeminent organization is the New England Fishery Management Council, based in Massachusetts. It was established in 1976 as part of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and it develops plans to ensure that our catch is sustainable.

Under President Obama's grand design, fishery management councils (there are eight of them nationally) may advise when a Regional Planning Body makes decisions, but they have no vote, nor can they veto a proposal. In short, major decisions will be made by federal bureaucrats and political appointees. The policy intentionally makes sure that local interests hold no real power. This is a top-down, Washington-knows-best attitude that insults local fishermen, who know better than anyone how to manage our fisheries for the long haul.

A good example of the National Ocean Policy in action concerns offshore wind turbines. A federal agency called the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) is now siting wind farm leasing plots. The agency already has a plan to lease 3,000 square miles of ocean bottom off Cape Cod for the Cape Wind project.

The New England Fisheries Management Council has no input into the Cape Wind process, but when the turbines are built, the area could become a protected no-fishing zone. It so happens that there are many tens of millions of dollars worth of scallops and clams in the area.

There aren't many wind turbines off Maine's coast, but that is expected to change in the near future. Serious money is involved, and hundreds of marine turbines are envisioned. At the Maine Fishermen's Forum, a Port Clyde fisherman asked about the impact of electromagnetic fields on fish populations. Spinning turbines mean massive new structures, noise, vibrations and submerged, gear-snagging power cables. How would these things affect lobsters, whales, herring and groundfish? No one really knows. (Birdkill, however, could be extensive.)

An article published by the Island Institute, called "Fathoming: What are the marine impacts of offshore turbines?" noted that there has been little study of the ecological effects of turbines on marine species. The article quoted a University of Maine marine sciences director, who said, "One floating wind turbine is not likely to have substantial environmental impacts, but 10 turbines might, and 100 almost certainly will."

This is a complicated subject, but the bottom line is that Maine fishermen face a real challenge in going up against a federal government that views marine wind power as sacrosanct. As one of the presenters at the Forum said, the state should demand that local groups, such as the New England Fisheries Management Council, be given a seat on the Regional Planning Body. We should also demand greater control of state waters. Washington might not care about our fishing industry, but we do. ###

State Rep. Kimberly Olsen (R-Phippsburg), a first-term legislator, serves on the Joint Standing Committee on Marine Resources