ELLSWORTH, Maine — A plan developed Wednesday by regulators will ensure a steady supply of herring for use as bait in Maine’s lobster industry through the remainder of the lobster season.
The Herring Section of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted a plan that provides limited, but regular fishing days throughout the month of October. The plan allows for one fishing day a week for the first three weeks in October, beginning Oct. 1; and allows for two fishing days a week beyond that until fishermen have landed the total allowable catch for this year.
The section members met Wednesday in response to concerns about the shortage of the bait fish and the impact it could have on the lobster industry. According to Terry Stockwell, the director of external affairs for the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the chair of the ASMFC Herring Section, there are about 13,500 metric tons of herring available in this year’s total allowable catch (TAC) in Area IA — an inshore area in the northern Gulf of Maine — and the regulated fishing days should provide both herring fishermen and the lobster industry with a steady supply of herring.
“The intention was to ensure a steady flow of fresh bait into the Maine market,” Stockwell said.
Although the main use of herring in Maine is for lobster bait, Stockwell said that fishermen from New Hampshire and Massachusetts provide fish for both the lobster industry and for human consumption.
Maine lobstermen got part of what they hoped for in the compromise.
“We were disappointed that we didn’t get at least one [fishing] day before Oct. 1,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “But all in all, we fared well.”
McCarron said the compromise will provide the steady supply of bait fish to the lobster industry for most of the rest of the fishing season.
“They’ll have a predictable supply of fish,” she said. “If they need to, they can salt and store bait, so they’ll be prepared for when the 1A fish are gone.”
The ASMFC works with the National Marine Fisheries Service to manage the stock of Atlantic herring. NMFS sets the TAC; ASMFC and its Herring Section set times the fleet is allowed to fish. The allowable catch this year was lowered to 45,000 metric tons as part of a three-year quota package based on an assessment that indicated a decline in the Area 1A herring stock.
In addition, Stockwell said, this is the first year that herring used for research were deducted from the TAC, which removed more than 4,000 metric tons from the TAC. That left just 40,900 metric tons of fish to be caught this year.
Adding to the shortage is the fact that the Canadian herring fishery, which generally supplements the Area 1A catch, is off this year.
To make matters worse, he said, fishermen caught more herring than anticipated during the summer, forcing the ASMFC to severely restrict the number of fishing days in September in order to leave enough of the TAC available after Oct. 1 when the larger midwater trawlers are allowed to begin fishing in the area.
“There’s just not enough fish to go around this year,” Stockwell said.
Although the last herring survey showed indications of a stock in decline, some reports claim the stock is healthy, Stockwell said. A new survey is scheduled for next year to determine the TAC for the next three years.
“We need to come up with an equitable way of distributing the fish so that there is not a glut when the lobster industry doesn’t have a need for it, and that remains steady through the season,” he said.