Herring catch cuts raise alarm

Posted Sept. 02, 2008, at 10:33 p.m.

Fisheries regulators from Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire have taken a big bite out of the number of days that fishing boats can land herring, alarming Maine fishermen who depend upon herring for their livelihoods.

And it’s not just Maine’s purse-seine fishermen who are concerned. Maine’s lobstermen, who use predominantly herring as bait for their lobster traps, fear that they may not have enough herring ready when the busy fall lobstering season kicks in. If they don’t, it could mean fewer landings for an industry that last year caught $280 million worth of lobster in Maine waters.

Since June, smaller purse-seine fishing boats have been landing herring from the inner Gulf of Maine, known to herring fishermen as Area 1A, three days a week, according to fishing industry officials and regulators. The catches have been good, but have been so good that the total catch is quickly approaching the annual limit set by federal regulators. The catch limit was 60,000 metric tons before 2007 when it was reduced to 55,000 metric tons. This year, it was reduced to 45,000 metric tons with a few thousand of those tons being set aside for research and other noncommercial purposes.

Because of the good catches and lower limits, fishing regulators from the three states decided last week at a meeting in Durham, N.H., to cut the number of days that herring boats can fish in September to a total of four. As it stands, purse-seine vessels have been allowed to fish for herring in Area 1A on Sept. 1 and 2 and on Sept. 15 and 16. Not only does that mean fewer days of making money for herring fishermen, but it also could mean not enough bait for the 9,000 licensed Maine lobstermen who hope to be busy hauling traps by the end of the month.

“It’s going to be tight for September — let’s face it,” Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said Tuesday. “Really, the backbone of bait for the lobster industry is herring.”

But it could have been worse, she said. Herring fishermen in Massachusetts and New Hampshire prefer larger midwater trawlers, which catch everything from the ocean bottom to the surface, rather than the smaller purse-seine boats that Maine fishermen use to catch fish at or near the surface. Federal regulations prevent trawlers from fishing in the inner Gulf of Maine before Oct. 1, and fishermen in the other two states were worried that Maine fishermen might meet the annual federal quota before they could even deploy their nets.

McCarron said that because of the concerns of herring fishermen in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, there was a chance that all of Area 1A would have been closed to herring boats until mid-October.

“A six-week shutdown would have been devastating,” McCarron said. “We rely on the [herring] landings from 1A for our fishery.”

Terry Stockwell, director of external affairs for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said last week officials believe that until recently, the lobster industry alone has been using approximately 60,000 metric tons of herring a year, the same amount as the former federal limit in Area 1A. Lobstermen have adjusted their practices in the past year to use less bait, he said, and last year were able to supplement the supply by importing herring caught in Canadian weirs.

But the Canadian supply is off this year, he said, which heightened the urgency of last week’s deliberations on how to help make sure everyone gets equal access to fewer fish.

“It was a tough meeting,” Stockwell said. “There’s just not enough fish for the amount of harvesters.”

He said that managing diverse fishing practices and industries that all depend on the same species is difficult, at best.

“When things get tight like they are right now, they all turn on each other and get a little ugly,” Stockwell said. “We’re all competing for the same product.”

McCarron said that lobstermen do have access to other sources of bait, such as pogies and redfish, but supplies of these fish are small enough that they cannot make up for a lack of available herring. Bait prices have been historically high this summer — at $18 to $26 a bushel the cost is a couple more dollars per bushel than last year — and they are likely to increase with the latest restrictions, she said.

“That’s a huge concern for everybody,” McCarron said. “Expenses are through the roof, [but] if you don’t have bait, you can’t fish.”

Outside the lobster industry, other businesses also stand to be affected. The Stinson Seafood cannery in Gouldsboro, a Bumblebee-owned facility that is the last sardine cannery in Maine, depends on a steady supply of herring. But according to Peter Colson, the cannery’s manager, the facility may not be as adversely affected as the lobster industry, which prefers fresh herring and does not have substantial bait storage capacity.

“We have some frozen stock that’s precut for us,” Colson said Tuesday.

Mary Beth Tooley, who represents the Small Pelagic Group, a coalition of fishing boats based in Camden, said last week that the coalition has been averaging about 3,000 metric tons in landings each week. With the cutbacks on fishing days in September, however, she said the coalition is looking at only 2,000 metric tons being landed for the entire month.

“It’s a drastic reduction in catch,” she said. Re-rigging vessels to fish for others species is not practical for a one-month period, and spending more on fuel to go further out is not likely to be cost-effective, according to Tooley. Fishing at Georges Bank, which is outside Area 1A, is possible, but purse-seining methods there aren’t as effective as they are closer to shore.

“Typically, this time of year, you don’t find [herring] there,” she said. “It costs a lot of money to go out to Georges Bank.”

Though fishermen have faced many strict restrictions in quotas over the past two decades, Tooley said those who have grown accustomed to fishing for herring have not previously had to deal with such drastic reductions in days at sea.

“We’ve never encountered this before,” she said. “It’s difficult to see how this is going to work.”

AP FILE PHOTO

Bait dealers Jesse Bennett (left) and Jeff Legere dump salted herring into crates in Portland in this 2003 photo.

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