Lots of problems found in DIFW Fisheries Division

DIF&W LogoAn assessment of DIF&W’s Fisheries Division found lots of problems in 2002, some of which persist today. Now, those problems are sure to resurface when the legislature considers LD 728, a bill to reorganize that division.

Here’s just one of many findings from the 2002 report. “Major gaps are evident in the public involvement philosophy, commitment, and processes used by the (Fisheries) Division. In some cases open displays of arrogance, or intolerance of angler ideas, have been detrimental to fisheries program support.”

The outside professional assessment was proposed by SAM’s Fishing Initiative Committee, authorized by the legislature in response to SAM’s top priority legislation, and funded by a major grant from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund with matching funds raised by SAM, when I served as executive director. Some fisheries biologists described it as a “witch hunt.”

DIF&W’s Commissioner at the time, Lee Perry, withheld the results for a week, trying to figure out how to respond. And once he did make the assessment public, an astonishing array of reactions came from all over the state.

Matt Dunlap, at that time a State Representative and leader of the legislature’s IFW Committee, called the results “not surprising,” and I felt that was right, although the findings did surprise many people.

The Assessment

The assessment was done by the Management Assistance Team of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Commissioner Perry selected five people to work with him on this project: Dennis Smith and Vaughn Anthony of SAM, Jeff Reardon of Trout Unlimited, Susan Hitchcock of the Maine Audubon Society, and Skip Trask of the Maine Professional Guides Association. This group prepared the scope of work and a request for proposals, sifted through the responses, and selected the IAFW’s Management Assistant Team, a national team of professionals who had worked all over the country on similar projects.

The process was very professional and thorough, including interviews with 50 people. The assessment team found poor management, lack of direction and accountability, inconsistent or nonexistent implementation of policies at the regional level, poor internal and external communications, little recognition of the importance of customer service, and a great need for more public involvement. The language was caustic and scathing.

MAT found three areas in “greatest need of improvement: leadership and personnel management, decision-making processes, and communications.”

“Major gaps are evident in the public involvement philosophy, commitment and processes used by the Division. In some cases open displays of arrogance, or intolerance of angler ideas, have been detrimental to fisheries program support,” noted the assessment. “A strategic planning process once every fifteen years and a dozen or so open public forums annually added to this are not enough for effective public involvement,” they reported.

And in one sentence that cheered most anglers, MAT noted “public participation in NOT ‘convincing the public to think like we do.”

MAT suggested that the fisheries staff’s “misconceptions of what public involvement is can be corrected by providing adequate employee training in public participation theories, skills and experiences.” But they also warned, “unless it is instilled within the culture, training alone is ineffective.”

Critical Imperatives

The assessment began with five “critical imperatives.”

The first imperative was to “plan for the timely transition of current senior science professionals.”

The second imperative was “the need to identify the overarching current goals and their next evolution.”

The third imperative was “that scientists, particularly senior scientists, continue to engage the publics to develop a short and long-term strategy for managing and renewing fishery resources. Critical will be the identification of potential new skill sets which must be introduced into the scientific community along with the evolution of more effective guiding philosophies such as in customer service and public involvement.”

The fourth imperative was “to institute means of insuring greater accountability for the execution of directives at the administrative levels, and tracking performance at the field level.”

The fifth imperative was “to garner the support necessary to get the funding to expand the program to address unmet resource needs.”

In my mind, most of these are still very pertinent, particularly the need to change attitudes about – and opportunities for – public involvement, and creating accountability at the regional and field level.

Legislature

I’ve gone back and pulled out the assessment, hoping it will both inform and inspire the legislature’s IFW Committee to finally tackle these problems and issues, and forge solutions. The bill calling for a reorganization of the fisheries division might give them that opportunity.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.