Voting against after being in favor

Forgive us, dear legislators, if we despair. You appear to be working hard, but sometimes we just have to ask: Do you know what you’re doing?

On May 1, Governor Paul LePage vetoed a bill that came out of the Marine Resources Committee. LD 435 intended to continue a “municipal predator control project,” an effort to combat the rapid proliferation of green crabs in state waters.

Maine’s coastal mudflats are home to a variety of species. Those with the greatest commercial value are soft-shell clams and worms. Though no marine harvest comes anywhere close to that of lobsters in value, clamming and worming are both significant sources of income.

These are fisheries that do not require a boat, so the equipment cost is relatively low. If you can get a license and are willing to put in the back-breaking labor, you can get out on the flats and make a living. That is getting harder now.

According to the Department of Marine Resources, clams had the second highest commercial harvest value in 2014, at over $19 million. Sandworms and bloodworms combined had a value of about $6.7 million. Worrisome for all three species is the fact that though the value has increased over the last five years, pounds landed have decreased.

It is getting harder and harder to pull a living out of the mud. A variety of shellfish conservation entities up and down the Maine coast have enlisted squadrons of volunteers to work at reseeding flats and nurturing baby clams, shepherding them toward maturity.

Over-harvesting, illegal fishing and run-off pollution – shoreside homeowners who fertilize large lawns, we’re looking at you – have both been challenges. But the biggest threat to the clam flats is the green crab.

They are an invasive species with a voracious appetite, and though they were introduced to Maine waters over a century ago, they have cycles of proliferation that the DMR theorizes are related to warmer water temperatures.

Their negative impact on traditional commercial species has triggered efforts to eradicate the species or to inhibit through “fencing” the crabs’ ability to reach clams. Also being actively researched are ways to make the green crab commercially viable so that some fishermen would find it worth their while to harvest them, thereby controlling their population growth.

This is the 2014-15 project of the Eastern Maine Skippers Program, an innovative educational program started three years ago at Deer Isle-Stonington High School, with the help of the Penobscot East Resource Center. It is aimed at the population of coastal students for whom commercial fishing is already a way of life, building their education around the skills necessary to succeed on the water.

The curriculum includes marine conservation, fisheries science, historical fishing research and fisheries management efforts at the state, interstate and federal levels. The program has spread to more than a half dozen coastal high schools in Washington, Hancock and Knox Counties.

The students attended the 2015 Maine Fishermen’s Forum in Rockland to report on their research to determine whether the green crab could become a food source, an ingredient in agricultural fertilizer or serve as bait for other species. The municipal predator control project was a state effort at control.

So how do green crabs generate a crisis of confidence in the Legislature? Here’s how. The Marine Resources Committee considered a bill to extend the predator control project begun last year to curb the green crab population. After a public hearing and work sessions, the committee voted unanimously to pass the bill. It was sent along to the House and Senate, both of which passed it as well.

The next stop was the governor’s desk, where it was vetoed by LePage. His reason? We’ve had enough study. “The data has been gathered,” he said. “Let’s react to the data, not simply continue to extend this pilot [study] ad infinitum.” Okay, that is a reasonable opinion worth debating. But shouldn’t it, wouldn’t it, be a point debated in committee before the bill was passed unanimously?

Given her original vote in favor of the bill, the reaction of the Marine Resources Committee chair, Senator Linda Baker, is puzzling. The bill was nothing but “political rhetoric,” said she. “We need to stop wasting people’s time and money on efforts that sound good in Augusta but have no actual, practical benefit for Mainers,” said she.

Excuse me, but it seems that she was one of those to whom it sounded good in Augusta. She voted for a bill that she now says has “no actual, practical benefit for Mainers.” Why did she do that?

What is this inconstancy? Given the lengthy process to vote a bill out of committee, how can committee members change their minds about the merits of a bill just two weeks after they supported it? In the House, it was enacted 138-1. In the Senate, it was enacted 34-0. Nineteen senators changed their minds and sustained the governor’s veto. What does this say about the committee process? How are we supposed to have any faith that our legislators know what they are doing? Doesn’t anybody have the courage of their convictions?

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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