Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Us and them?

As the criminal trial on the Matinicus shooting unfolds in Rockland, there is a another quiet story playing out in Augusta. It’s a new version of an old story. The Department of Marine Resources seeks legislation allowing it shut down entire fisheries where there is conflict between fishermen and “a risk of harm to any person.” LD 1604. As with the shutdown itself, this law was pressed through the legislative process without the DMR making any effort to work with fishing communities to address the problem of violence between fishermen.

The martial law declared over Matinicus lobstering last year was implemented by sending out a half dozen armed officers, who announced that we were all out of work for 2 weeks, handed out copies of the rule and departed into the evening rain about 10 minutes later. There was no effort to work with fishermen or community leaders to deal with violence on the wharf. Despite the motivation of about 95% of the fishing families to maintain stability following a stunning incident, the department did not engage with the Board of Assessors or the fishing leadership to come up with any meaningful safety plan.

From the Commissioner's and others' remarks, it appears those officials believe everyone in the Matinicus fleet bore some indirect responsibility for the actions of the combatants. This was why the Commissioner felt justified in imposing such dramatic collective punishment and putting an entire community out of business to "send a message." Imagine closing a small town in Aroostook County to all farming activities in September if a couple of farmers got into it, or closing Piscataquis County to logging because a couple of loggers got violent.

My impression is that there is a mentality that the community of Matinicus Island deserved a crackdown from afar because of the unique enforcement challenges and frustration the Department has experienced. DMR wanted to "get its point across," and "send a message." I ask whether a similar act of violence between fishermen in Stonington or Vinalhaven have resulted in a quarantine of those fishing communities.

This typifies the relationship between state agencies and Matinicus- a lack of services and support, lack of interest, and an unwillingness to collaborate to solve problems. When there’s a problem, officials simply throw up their hands and portray islanders as out of control and lawless. The reaility is that the island self governs not by choice, but by necessity, out of the lack of having a partner in Augusta. DMR won’t supply resources to deal with ccriminal activity, but wants to, by remote control, punish the entire community and force the community to deal with the actual trouble makers.

The new law provides for a hearing in front of the Commissioner within 30 days. I believe the hearing should be before a judge or a qualified administrative hearing offficer not employed by DMR. I also believe that if the Department wants to wait 30 days to provide a hearing, it can suspend any closure until the hearing has been held and a ruling issued. That will make a hearing provision meaningful. Otherwise, it’s a joke. In poor taste. Boat payments won’t be suspended. Credit card companies won’t wait for the hearing.

In its currrent form, LD 1604 encourages arbitrary action from afar and lets the DMR off the hook for doing the hard work of dealing with a few individuals who commit crimes and think it’s OK because they’re fishermen. There are fishermen who’ve lost tens of thousands of dollars to gear and boat sabotage and are still waiting for a meaningful response from the government officials who have the power and responsibility to act. LD 1604 is no substitute.

The fundamental question is whether the island must self govern or whether state agencies can provide meaningful services and support in the role of partner as well as enforcer from above.

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