AUGUSTA — Norman Olsen's opponents began mobilizing in mid-March, days after the now-resigned commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources verbally charged into one of the most sensitive debates in the state's fishing industry.
Olsen, a former fisherman and lobsterman, told attendees at the annual Maine Fishermen's Forum in Rockland that groundfishermen should be allowed to keep and sell lobsters accidentally caught in their nets. The practice, known as by-catch, is not allowed in Maine.
Lobstermen, who view by-catch as a mortal threat to their fishery, were livid.
Within days, the industry, led primarily by lobstermen from mid-coast and Down East regions, waged an aggressive pre-emptive mailing campaign against changing the law. The cross-hairs soon moved to Olsen. The DMR chief had proposed no legislation, yet he remained undaunted in expressing public support for by-catch and other controversial regulatory changes, such as transferable licenses.
Olsen abruptly resigned his post Wednesday after a morning meeting with Gov. Paul LePage. Olsen, 60, a former foreign diplomat, walked into the meeting with a one-sentence, handwritten letter, which he gave to the governor after being told that he had to win over disgruntled constituents.
Olsen called the mandate "mission impossible."
The resulting firestorm hit its apex Wednesday night when Olsen released a 1,689-word broadside against the administration.
The resignation is now political. Armed with the administration's previous missteps in Cabinet appointments and other controversies, the governor's opponents have begun parsing Olsen's myriad accusations.
At this point, the full picture is held captive by the fact-twisting purgatory of he-said, he-said. While the administration on Thursday said it was reluctant to participate, it handed over documents that it believes show how Olsen had riled various constituents.
A spokesman for LePage generally dismissed Olsen's accusations.
"Obviously, when something like this happens, people get upset," said Adam Fisher, LePage's spokesman.
He added, "There's no smoking gun here. There's nothing unethical, nothing illegal. Again, the governor and Mr. Olsen were aligned on policy. There was just a difference in style."
But according to Olsen, there was also a difference in willpower. He accused LePage of caving to the demands of the lobster industry at the expense of the groundfish industry, which the governor had previously vowed to help.
"Regrettably, while I have maintained my commitments, the governor’s office has not maintained its resolve," Olsen wrote.
It was not clear Thursday whether the letter-writing campaign would signal a shift in the administration's policy to assist the groundfishing industry, or if it demonstrated for the first-time governor the complexity and sensitivity of the by-catch issue.
But there's little doubt that industry pressure played into the administration's split with Olsen.
It began five months ago. When it was over, the industry had submitted to the Governor's Office a pair of form letters signed by more than 145 licensed lobstermen.
The second form letter was a tear-out from the Downeast Lobstermen's Association March newsletter.
The majority of the signatures appeared on the first letter, which took issue with Olsen's "frustrating and dismaying" comments at the forum, including the by-catch policy and the commissioner's support of transferable lobstering licenses.
Mid-coast and Down East lobstermen fear the latter could price them out of the business.
Nick Lemieux was among the letter-writers. Lemieux serves on DMR's Lobster Advisory Council and is vice president of the Downeast Lobstermen's Association.
Lemieux was also on the governor's transition team to review DMR commissioners. He supported Olsen, as did the rest of the search committee.
"We all thought he was a good choice," Lemieux said.
He said he began to change his mind when Olsen started pushing the by-catch issue.
"(By-catch) was only in the talking stage," Lemieux said. "But even the fact that he was talking about it worried me and a lot of other Down East lobstermen."
Groundfishermen, whom Olsen had repeatedly vowed to help prior to his appointment at DMR, have said the by-catch ban is preventing the industry from staging a comeback. They argue that groundfish boats that once docked in Portland Harbor have migrated to Massachusetts, where fishermen are allowed to land and sell a quota of lobsters.
Lobstermen counter that their fishery should not be sacrificed to save an industry that nearly fished its resource into oblivion by forsaking conservation efforts.
The debate came into full bloom in 2007 when a Portland lawmaker attempted to change the by-catch law. The measure was defeated.
But Olsen was convinced that restoring the industry could be done effectively and that the benefits would spur job creation on and offshore. Part of the equation, he told constituents, was by-catch, which would bring ground boats back to Portland and Port Clyde.
As Olsen repeated this belief at constituent meetings, the letters continued to pour into the Governor's Office.
On April 28, LePage sent a stack of letters to Olsen with a handwritten note.
"This letter came to me from concerned fishermen," the governor wrote to Olsen. "Would you review the three concerns and provide with talking points so that I may review their concerns from the administration's standpoint."
LePage invited Olsen to discuss the matter in person.
It's unclear whether that meeting took place. However, by then the governor's staff had confronted Olsen with the letters and with an April 5 complaint about his communication style from a group representing the seaweed harvesting industry.
The administration said the letter showed Olsen had turned off more than one constituency.
Around that time, Olsen said, he was "put on notice" by LePage's staff and denied meetings with the governor.
He claimed LePage and his senior staff had repeatedly given "private audiences to groups and individuals objecting to my open discussion of the issues."
The lobster industry pressed forward.
On June 8, the administration received a letter from the Downeast Lobstermen's Association. The group said the commissioner was pushing an agenda that would lead to a "disaster."
On June 1, LePage himself worried in another handwritten note that Olsen was "moving too fast" on certain initiatives.
Olsen, meanwhile, thought the governor had abandoned him. He said he never would have taken the post if he and LePage were not aligned on policy.
In his statement, the outgoing commissioner indicated that he knew his policy would face opposition from the powerful lobster industry. The governor, he wrote, apparently didn't.
He wrote, "I still find it amazing that a tiny faction of industry members seeking to protect their state-granted monopolies over a public resource — perhaps a hundred and fifty out of some 12,000 marine resource license holders — and signing pre-printed letters, can trounce a supposedly iron-willed governor. But, clearly, they have done so."
LePage administration departures
Norman Olsen's resignation as chief of the Maine Department of Marine Resources marks the fourth senior staff or Cabinet change in the LePage administration since the governor took office in January.
In April, Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Phil Congdon was forced to resign after making controversial comments during a tour of Aroostook County.
Congdon's resignation was paired with the reassignment of Department of Environmental Protection head Darryl Brown. Brown was moved to the State Planning Office after his DEP post was found to violate a conflict of interest provision of the Clean Water Act.
Also in April, Dan Demeritt, LePage's communications director, resigned after it was made public that he was facing foreclosure on five properties.