Mitch Nunan prepares to load herring onto his lobster boat at the fishing pier in Cape Porpoise in 2017. Maine’s lobster industry is facing the threat of a severe bait shortage, with limits on the herring catch.

Feeling pressure from trade tariffs and pending rules to protect right whales, Maine’s lobster industry is facing yet another threat: a severe bait shortage.

Regulators want to cap this year’s herring landings at last year’s levels, or 50,000 metric tons, and slash next year’s quota of the most popular lobster bait from 110,000 to 30,000 metric tons. They want to do this to offset record low numbers of newborn herring that are entering the fishery to replace those that are caught, eaten by other predators or die from natural causes.

The 2019 quota could fall even lower if regulators adopt a separate proposal to leave more herring in the sea to feed the fish, birds and marine mammals that eat them, including Gulf of Maine species such as cunner, cod, seals, whales, puffins and terns. The New England Fishery Management Council could decide the issue as early as September.

“We need to think about the realities of the 2019 lobstering season with eyes wide open,” Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said in the group’s July newsletter. “There will be an acute bait shortage and bait prices will be very high. … We must start now to think about how we fish and when we fish. We must think about how we can be more efficient.”

That will mean different things for different lobstermen, McCarron said – some will decide to use less bait in each trap, use a finer mesh bait bag or forgo the practice of dumping old bait and simply add to it with each haul. Some might switch baits, swapping out herring for pogies or redfish, even though a herring shortage will likely cause price spikes and shortages there, too.

Lobstermen who fish out of smaller docks might have difficulty finding any bait at all, she said. They will probably spend their time between now and then trying to line up a stable bait supply, possibly for August, when herring supplies can traditionally get tight just as the lobster season peaks, and definitely for 2019, McCarron said.

The impact on a fisherman’s bottom line will be acute, she said. A similar decline in herring landings from 2013 to 2017 drove the price of bait up as much as 75 percent in many Maine harbors over four years, McCarron said. No one knows how much higher the price will rise if such a decline in landings occurs in a single year.

“The price of herring for bait is already high,” Port Clyde lobsterman Gary Libby said. “A lower quota will only create more hardship for lobster fishermen because the price of bait is the biggest expense, and with projected lower catch of lobster in the next few years we will need bait at a cost that will help fishermen maintain their businesses that helps the local economy.”

The pending bait shortage is happening while Maine’s $1.5 billion lobster industry – which landed more than $533 million of lobster last year – is facing high tariffs to sell its product to Europe and China, its two largest overseas markets, and federal regulators are facing a lawsuit from environmental groups that targets the lobster industry’s alleged impact on right whales.

This so-called “double whammy” on the bait front is the result of two separate processes playing out at the same time – one the result of a benchmark stock assessment that happens every three years and the other the result of a rule change meant to add forage needs of other species into the formula used to set fishing quotas, said Janice Plante, spokeswoman for the New England Fishery Management Council.

The preliminary stock assessment that included the record-low recruitment numbers came out at a council meeting last month. The final assessment is still under review, but it is based on data that show four of the six smallest classes of newborns occurred in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017, Plante said. The population now has more 6-year-old herring than first- and second-year herring combined.

The full stock assessment report will not be available until at least August, but a preliminary report suggests overfishing is not to blame.

The low recruitment numbers are what prompted the council to ask the regional administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to cap the 2018 herring catches in three out of four herring fishing zones, including coastal Maine, at the 2017 levels, or about 50,000 metric tons, Plante said. It is considering cutting the 2019 quota to less than 30,000 metric tons.

As of July 12, fishermen had landed 14.4 metric tons of herring, or 14.3 percent of the 100.8 metric tons allowed under the old quota, according to NOAA’s weekly landings reports. The landings reports indicate the fleet has been landing more than last year in Maine’s coastal waters and southern New England, but almost nothing offshore.

The stock drama is playing out while the council is wrapping up a years-long process of how to account for herring as a forage species.

At a series of public hearings, environmental groups, recreational fishermen and whale tour operators, among others, have come out to ask the council to tinker with the formula it uses to set annual herring quotas to recognize that this fish feeds more than just lobster, but serves as a staple in the diets of many other larger fish, birds and marine mammals, Plante said.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association is one of the groups that disagree. It doesn’t want to do anything to contribute to the stock decline of herring or any other species, but it claims that the council’s own scientific analysis shows that forage set-asides don’t help most other predators, and marginally help only a few, while gutting the herring fishery that feeds the lobster industry.

“We looked and looked, sifting through all the data, and the science just isn’t there,” McCarron said. “The council’s own analysis shows there is very minimal benefit of leaving extra herring in the ocean other than making people feel good. The ecosystem benefits? They’re just not there. We shouldn’t change what we’re doing without good reason.”

The council is considering a wide range of options, including pushing herring trawlers into deeper waters to preserve herring schools that feed nearshore predator species. This is an option favored by those in Maine’s herring purse seiners, including the crew of the Western Sea that fishes out of Eliot and the Ruth & Pat that fishes out of Portland.

“We used to have a herring fishery that could easily sustain itself without ruining the ecosystem – it is time to revert back to that model,” the New England Purse Seiner’s Alliance, which includes the Western Sea and the Ruth & Pat as well as two other boats, Scout and Ocean Venture, wrote in a letter to the council.

But those who operate herring trawlers and some Maine bait dealers disagree, and say that it doesn’t matter what method of fishing is used as long as those who do it are following quotas. They argue that Maine lobstermen rely on the availability of herring, and suggest the council is considering herring’s role as forage mostly to appease environmental groups.

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

Mail: [email protected]

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