Herring shortage saps wind from lobstermen’s sails

Posted Sept. 23, 2008, at 10:17 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:09 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Lobstermen will ask fishery regulators to open the herring fishery to additional days of fishing today when they meet with representatives from Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in New Hampshire.

The herring catch provides lobster fishermen with the bait they need, and restrictions on the total allowable catch and the days when herring fishermen can fish have resulted in a shortage of bait that has the lobster industry worried.

“We’re desperate,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “We need bait now.”

The shortage has forced the state’s lobster fishermen to look for other sources of bait.

“What bait there is, is coming in from Canada,” said Steve Robbins III, manager of the Stonington Lobster Co-Op. “That’s extremely pricey. It’s difficult to get and the cost to us and to the fishermen is one-third or more than they were paying originally. It’s not a good situation.”

The Herring Section of the ASMFC works with the National Marine Fisheries Service to manage the herring fishery. NMFS sets the total amount of herring that can be landed from the in-shore area of the Gulf of Maine along the coast, known as Area 1A. ASMFC determines when herring can be taken from that area.

The issue becomes complicated, according to McCarron, because herring fishermen use two types of vessel. Most Maine fishermen fish with smaller purse-seine boats that take fish near the surface, while fishermen to the south in New Hampshire and Massachusetts prefer the larger, midwater trawlers that catch everything from the ocean bottom to the surface.

NMFS reduced the total allowable catch, or TAC, last year from 60,000 metric tons to 50,000 metric tons. This year, the TAC was set at 45,000 metric tons. Several thousand tons of herring are set aside for research, leaving a total TAC for this year of 40,900 metric tons.

“That’s about a 30 percent reduction,” McCarron said. “That’s a big hit.”

The midwater trawlers are banned from Area 1A until Oct. 1. To ensure there are fish left in the area when the trawlers arrive, ASMFC restricts the number of days the purse-seiners can fish. The commission limited the catch to 2,000 metric tons and allowed just four days in September to fish — two early in the month and two days at midmonth.

“The boats were fishing just when Hurricane Hannah was coming through,” McCarron said. “It was hard for the boats to get out.”

As a result, the catch was well below the 2,000-metric-ton limit which has created a shortage. There is less herring coming in from Canada this year, and some fishermen have turned to other fish, including pogies and redfish, or turned to frozen bait, all of which is more expensive. The price for frozen bait can be three times the price of herring, McCarron said, making it difficult for lobstermen to make a living.

A portion of that 2,000-metric ton limit is still available for September, and there are approximately 13,000 metric tons left of the total allowable catch.

McCarron said they hope to convince officials to open up a day or two of fishing in September and then regulate the catch so there will be a steady stream of bait herring available through the rest of the lobster season. Beyond that, she said, there needs to be a long-range plan to manage the fishery and ensure that enough herring is available for the lobster industry.

While Robbins has been able to provide lobstermen at the co-op with bait, he said he’s heard that fishermen in other areas have been hard-pressed to find bait. But the situation is not going to get any better, he said, and without additional fishing days, it could get a lot worse. For some lobstermen, it may be a case of too little, too late.

“Nobody here has had to go without, and everybody’s been able to go to work,” Robbins said. “We need to go down there and try to petition them to allow some extra days, and sooner rather than later. If we’re successful, that’s a really good thing. But that’s not going to be enough. That’s the reality of it.”

The meeting with representatives from Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is scheduled for 10 a.m. today at the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department in the Marine Fisheries Division building, 225 Main St. in Durham, N.H.

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