Port Clyde fisherman Glen Libby is no stranger to political advocacy. A member of the 18-member New England Fishery Management Council, Libby’s first encounter with public involvement in fishery regulation took place when he was a young man, digging for clams with a friend on the St. George River.

“We were clamming,” he said in a Jan. 5 interview at the offices of Port Clyde Fresh Catch, the fish processing plant and community supported fishery he helped to form and now manages.

“It was a long time ago. The river was closed because of a big storm or [a problem at] the sewage plant. We didn’t know. We came up from the south and marine patrol was in Thomaston. It was Sunday.”

He said no other clammers were on the flats and the tide was out. Instead of wading over to tell him that he was harvesting in a closed area, Maine Marine Patrol officers waited for the tide to come in enough so they could motor their boat to the spot where Libby and a friend had been working for hours.

“They made us dump them out,” he said. Libby wrote a letter to the editor. “That was my first advocacy statement and that was a long time ago. You get used to talking to people and giving your opinion. Pretty soon they’re knocking on your door and asking you to join.”

“I’ve been kind of creeping into it for a long time with advocacy for different things and going to Augusta to speak on bills,” he said.

Libby is in his third year on the New England council, one of eight regional fishery councils set up under the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 — now known as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Each regional council manages a section of the living marine resources within the U.S. exclusive economic zone between 3 and 200 miles offshore. In addition to addressing issues relating to foreign fishing, the councils were created to promote the development of a domestic fleet and link the fishing community more directly to the management process.

Libby is one of two Maine representatives whose terms will expire in September. Up to four nominations for each vacant post will be made by the governor and forwarded to the secretary of commerce. The final selection will be announced in June, with a swearing in to follow in September. Representatives may hold three consecutive terms and can return after taking a year or more off.

“It’s up to the governor,” said Libby. “I don’t even know if I’m on the list yet.” He said the influence of the Department of Marine Resources commissioner depends on the relationship between that officeholder and the sitting governor. On Jan. 6, Gov. Paul LePage nominated acting Commissioner Pat Keliher to the post. That appointment must be confirmed by the Legislature. Libby said he was pleased with Keliher’s approach to managing the shrimp season in Maine.

“The management is dynamic and flexible,” he wrote in a Jan. 15 email. “He brought in stakeholders from all aspects of the fishery — fishing, processing — to help come up with solutions. I think he will do a great job.”

The other NEFMC seat opening up for Maine is that held by Jim Odlin.

“He’s been fishing a long time,” said Libby. “He’s got some big boats. He’s done well.” Libby said Odlin’s boats are based in Portland but he lands his fish in Gloucester because of Maine’s restriction against landing any lobsters that are a bycatch of the groundfishery.

“It’s legal federally, but the state does not allow lobster landings by draggers,” he said.

The complex network of state and federal regulation is part of what council members must navigate. In addition to serving on the federally operated NEFMC, Libby is a member of the state’s Marine Resources Advisory Council. He brings to those positions his experience as a fisherman and as president of both Port Clyde Fresh Catch and the Midcoast Fishermen’s Cooperative.

Until recently, he was chairman of the Midcoast Fishermen’s Association, now renamed the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. Lobsterman Gerry Cushman has replaced Libby in that position.

The NEFMC currently includes four active commercial fishermen, two recreational fishermen and three retired commercial fishermen. Other members, such as Mary Beth Tooley of the O’Hara Corporation and Small Pelagics Group, represent larger companies. One member represents the Nature Conservancy. The remaining six members sit on the council as part of their responsibilities as state officials.

“For the most part, I think the group works well together,” said Libby. “We’re not supposed to agree all the time.” He said that was how the council achieved a balanced outcome.

“I respect all of them,” he said.

“We’re mandated to represent the people of the U.S. and to manage this for the benefit of the country,” Libby said. He said that meant balancing economic and environmental concerns. “If you don’t have a healthy environment, you’re not going to have the jobs or the fish. You need to have it all.”

He said regulations are written by Congress, and that the rules set a time frame, for each individual species, under which stocks must be allowed to replenish. Because all species interact with one another — “big fish eat little fish” — the council needs to balance the needs of the various fisheries and decide how the rules are implemented in ways that “hopefully work for the most people and do a good job.”

Libby said the decision-making process was similar to the way individual fishermen determine whether to use traps or trawl gear when going after fish.

Once the council has made its logistical decisions, NEFMC staff and the National Marine Fisheries Service analyze the plan to see if it will work within the confines of the law.

Allocating the right to fish

A major ongoing challenge facing U.S. fisheries has to do with the way access to the fish is allocated.

Libby used to go after groundfish, but now only participates in the shrimp fishery. He sold his groundfish permit “due to hard times,” when fuel prices rose to a point where they exceeded the price he was getting for his catch.

“Truthfully, I was getting tired of going offshore,” he said. “You can still fish groundfish in state waters, if you have a state permit. There’s not a lot of fish out there, but I’m toying with it.”

He said a state permit would allow him to fish in the three summer months — July, August and September — filling in a season when there are no shrimp. The lobster zone around Monhegan Island is closed in summer, leaving a trap-free area, open for other fishing, during that period. In other zones in state waters, “lobster traps have taken over,” he said. He said the federal lobster fishery has “really exploded.”

“The big thing that’s coming up now is the cod,” he said. “On Jan. 18, in Portland, the Groundfish Committee will debate that.”

Under current rules, a fishery in the Gulf of Maine has 10 years to recover its stocks to the level designated by Congress.

“I think it’s going to take a rewrite of the Gulf of Maine rules for cod, to allow us to extend the time line,” Libby said. He said current cod limits were set eight years ago with a goal of reaching that designated level less than two years from now. The law does not allow any flexibility to reset that date, and Libby said that is what is needed.

“Otherwise, there’s very little we can do, except maybe cut the amount by 90 percent or tow topless nets so groundfishermen don’t catch any cod,” he said.

Such gear innovations are not uncommon, but take time to design, test and implement.

“Right now, there’s a rigid time line to rebuild to a level determined for adequate reproduction in 10 years,” he said.

The sort of gear innovation Libby mentioned would keep cod, hake, pollock and redfish out of the nets. Flat fish, such as flounder, would still get caught, but, “that wouldn’t give you much of a fishery,” he said. “It’s not a real solution.”

“We need legislative change in Washington, D.C. to make this work,” he said.

Libby said cuts are necessary in the amount of cod fishermen can take. Scientists have told the council that, even ending all fishing would not replenish the cod to the mandated level in the time allowed.

“The law says we have to catch up to optimum yield. That’s the benefit to the nation,” Libby said. He said some proposed rules would lead to a harvest that is less than optimal. “That’s not legal, either.”

Changing the way fish are counted

Libby said a proposal for Amendment 5 to the Herring Management Plan would call for the weighing of all herring taken in U.S. waters.

“It’s really impractical,” Libby said. “The logistics of that are daunting.” He said fishermen on islands in small “backwater” communities don’t have the equipment to weigh every catch.

The council is considering using a volumetric approach that would find the average weight per barrel of herring, and then count the number of barrels fishermen bring in.

Even as fishermen and regulators debate the method of counting fish in an individual species, science is pointing to the need to evaluate the resource as a whole system.

“The next thing that’s coming along is ecosystem-based management, instead of single species,” said Libby. “It’s kind of like deer hunting. You take enough deer out so they don’t overrun something else.”

“I don’t know if humans are capable of that,” he said. “Do we know enough to be able to say, ‘There’s too much squid in the Gulf of Maine. Let’s go out and catch them?'” Libby said this year’s low shrimp quota came about due to squid feeding heavily on the shrimp last season. He later said that was pure speculation, “but it is this kind of ecosystem view that may benefit us in the future. Understanding species interaction in the wild is very important.”

“Shrimp is pretty tightly controlled,” he said.

“One year, when the season was tightly controlled like this, and the shrimp were about the same, we ended up catching 1,900 metric tons and went to the end of March,” he said. That was in 2006. The next three years saw an average yearly catch of 3,135 metric tons. Preliminary data for 2010 show the harvest jumping to more than 5,500 metric tons.

Libby said catch rates at the start of this season were lower than last year. According to the Department of Marine Resources website at maine.gov/dmr, the first week of the season saw 87 Maine boats catching 147 metric tons of shrimp; 13 boats from New Hampshire and Massachusetts caught a combined total of 36 metric tons. The rate of harvest, for all 100 boats, was 412.5 pounds per hour.

“I wouldn’t want to see 5,000 pounds an hour, because you’d be done,” said Libby. “I’d just as soon have work all winter.”

He said managing fisheries as a whole system would create a need for a more flexible market and processing infrastructure that could respond to immediate changes in the shifting health of the resource.

“It has to be done in baby steps,” he said.

Balancing access creates controversy

Libby said service on the council was “a thankless job. People blame the council. The people on the council are the ones that either don’t blame, or that got tired of blaming other people and take the bull by the horns and do something themselves to make change from the inside.”

“I spent plenty of years complaining about things and blaming someone else,” he said.

Amendment 18 to the Magnuson-Stevens Act is a work in progress that seeks to help preserve a diverse fleet through allocation caps, quota set-asides for new entrants and owner-operators, and other measures designed to foster an affordable fishery through leasing restrictions. A scoping hearing on Amendment 18 was scheduled to take place in Portland on Wednesday, Jan. 18 at 5 p.m., right after the Groundfish Committee meeting.

Libby said all the fisheries were in flux. “It takes so long to put something through,” he said. “The fleet diversity amendment deals with the way fish were allocated originally.” He said a quota-based system is hard to manage.

“One group wants to redistribute the quotas,” he said. “The remaining fleet is just making it, except for a few who paid hundreds of thousands of dollars and are just making it back.” As smaller operators drop out of the industry, there is potential for larger companies to buy up their permits. But Libby said data suggests that permit transfers and sales have actually slowed under sectors. “Selling of permits has been going on for years,” he said.

“We’ve had consolidation ever since Amendment 5 in the mid-1990s, with people dropping out and selling permits,” Libby said. “We’ve had consolidation under days at sea.” The latter rule limited fishing by restricting the amount of time a boat could be away from its home port. Small boats that travel more slowly and carry less cargo lost time even when steaming out to the fertile fishing grounds. That system was replaced May 1, 2010, with permits that allow a fisherman a specific percentage of that year’s total allowable catch.

“Fishing is a tough business,” he said.

Libby said he was happy to have been part of the process that created state and private permit banks.

“It allows people who don’t have a lot of capital to find a way into the business,” he said. “Any expansion of quota needs to be based on stock growth.”

Maine’s percentage of fishery access shrinking

Libby said access to the fish depends on the fleet, and that the fleet is only as strong as the number of permits, the ability of the machinery and the manpower that does the labor of bringing the fish from ocean to market.

“If Maine loses that, we won’t have access to that resource,” he said.

“We’re down to about 40 groundfishermen, where we used to have thousands,” Libby said. “Permit banks give guys an opportunity to fish at a reasonable rate of leasing and stay in business.”

But the new system isn’t foolproof and those who want to preserve local fisheries need to support them.

“Someone with deep pockets could buy permits and base in Maine,” he said. “People who want local fish depend on that access.”

Currently, approximately 40 Maine fishermen hold approximately 70 groundfish permits. He suggested that lobstermen might be able to buy permits to be held against a time when that fishery is less plentiful, “but it would be nice to have fish to catch when it happens.”

“I don’t really care who catches them,” he said. “I just don’t want to see Maine left out in the cold.”

Libby said groundfish populations in the Gulf of Maine are fairly localized, spending their whole life cycle in the same waters, and returning to particular places to spawn.

“That’s what we try to protect,” Libby said. “There’s places where dragging is fine and I think there’s places where it should be excluded. Spawning grounds shouldn’t have any fishing. There have been studies that prove that even fixed gear — such as traps — disturbs spawning.”

He later said a report on spawning cod, presented at the last Groundfish Committee meeting, described research that showed that the cod were sensitive to any disruption of their spawning grounds.

“This research specifically mentioned gill nets, the trap comment was speculation on my part,” he said. “It may be worth investigating if we can accurately identify fish spawning areas but right now the jury is still out on this on a wider scale.”

“If you screw that up you lose it,” he said. “All these fish we used to catch in abundance here come in to lay eggs. Shrimp are still doing their thing. We’re catching them when they bring their eggs in.” He said the choice in the shrimp fishery is either a “clean catch” close to shore or bycatch off shore.

“Shrimp seem to prosper even if they’re caught inside,” he said.

Libby said other fishermen haven’t complained about the work he does on the council.

“These guys around here live in a pretty small world,” he said. “They don’t pay a lot of attention to the council. They’re too busy.”

“It’s always helpful to get people’s opinions,” he said. “That helps guide your decisions.”

He said there is a perception that council members have an agenda and want to ram changes down fishermen’s throats.

“None of that is true,” Libby said. He said council members try to juggle a number of factors.

“I’d like to think that while I was on there I helped to do something that would make it work,” he said. He said the council shifts from one issue to another to find the right combination to bring about a recovery of fishing stocks and that he hoped he brought common sense and experience to what can sometimes be a political discourse.