An interstate fishing council has extended some of Maine’s emergency Atlantic herring restrictions to Massachusetts to try to close a loophole that threatened to derail the summer supply of lobster bait.

On Wednesday, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted 2-1 to cut the number of days that herring boats can land fish each week within its jurisdiction from five to two, with Maine and New Hampshire representatives voting in favor of the landing day reduction and Massachusetts voting against it. Under its emergency rules, Maine had already cut its landing days down to two in an attempt to prolong the availability of fresh herring throughout the lobster season, but boats that fished that area could still land for five days if they sailed to a Massachusetts port such as Gloucester.

Maine regulators are trying to balance the lobster industry’s demand for fresh bait now, when season is just beginning but offshore herring is in short supply, with its need for fresh bait through the end of summer, when the inshore summer herring quota is in danger of running out. While lobstermen don’t like a bait shortage at any time, the industry is supporting Maine’s herring restrictions to make sure there will still be fresh bait available when they need it most.

Maine regulators who lobbied on behalf of the regional rule change say one large boat that usually fished for menhaden has begun to fish heavily for herring and bring it to Gloucester. They argued that boat, which fishermen described as 160 feet long with a 50-foot seine, could undermine Maine’s efforts to stretch the 19,400 metric ton quota of herring that can be taken from Maine’s coastal waters through September, and punish Maine’s herring fleet, which has supported the state’s effort to balance the need to prolong the quota and still keep at least some herring coming in for lobstermen to bait their traps.

“Without constraints on the landing (in Massachusetts) we would not make it into August, much less September,” said Terry Stockwell of Maine Department of Marine Resources.

New Hampshire and Massachusetts worried that the reduction in landing days might affect their whiting fishermen, which often end up catching some herring in their nets. Commission members agreed to look for ways to exempt the whiting fishery, but couldn’t figure out a way to do that on Wednesday. Stockwell, Maine’s representative, promised to raise the issue at the next meeting, which seemed to help win over New Hampshire’s support for the overall campaign to reduce herring-landing days across the region from five to two.

While Massachusetts voted against the measure, with its commissioner saying they worried that a landing reduction in Massachusetts could worsen the bait shortage for Massachusetts lobstermen, some Maine fishermen said the restrictions didn’t go far enough. In addition to the landing day reductions, Maine also implemented a hard-and-fast landing limit of no more than 600,000 pounds of herring per boat. Some Maine fishermen argued that the region should adopt a catch limit as well as a limit on the number of days that can be fished, but state officials did not make that request.

Maine did threaten to lift all of its emergency herring restrictions if the two-day landing restriction was not adopted across the region.

“The level playing field is important,” Stockwell said. “The addition of another vessel to the fishery with no landing limits and more landing days than Maine fishing vessels is profoundly unfair to our fleet. We would have no choice.”

One fisherman noted that nothing prevented the menhaden boat from surrounding itself with carrier vessels that could enable it to “gobble up” the 19,400 metric ton summer quota for the Maine coastal zone even with two-day landing weeks. Another noted that he had heard another operator was trying to outfit its trawler with seine fishing gear, as the menhaden boat had., but he wasn’t sure if he could make the gear shift fast enough to make a profitable run.

Regulators tried to calm those concerns by saying they could always meet again to adopt stricter regulations if necessary.

Maine has been struggling with how to manage the bait shortage since the spring. The dozen offshore trawlers that hunt for herring in federal waters off Georges Bank haven’t caught much yet. Some fishermen say that they simply haven’t found the fish yet, while others say it is because they want to wait until the herring schools separate from the haddock, which, as a closely regulated species, could cause closure of the entire herring fishery off Georges Bank if too many are caught in nets intended for herring.

“They can’t find herring that’s not filled with haddock, and they don’t want to hit the haddock limit and close the whole fishery down,” said New Hampshire Commissioner Ritchie White.

Several herring fishermen warned regulators Wednesday not to expect any relief from the bait shortage from the offshore fishery anytime soon.

“My captain feels it will be when the water temperatures take a plunge back down,” said Ryan Raber, the manager of the 112-foot Providian, a combination purse seiner and midwater trawler that fishes out of Portland. “Our opinion is it’s going to be late summer or early fall before we start seeing that area produce.”

Meanwhile, Maine lobstermen are struggling.

“The bait freezers are empty,” Stockwell said.

And the bait that is available is expensive.

“Prices are through the roof,” said Patrice McCarron, the executive director of the Maine Lobsterman’s Association.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

[email protected]