ELLSWORTH, Maine — Maine’s lobster industry, which depends largely on fresh herring for bait, recently may have gotten a small break on its supply of the fish this year.
It all depends how much of the bait will be herring caught with fixed gear after the end of May.
Regulators have had quotas on how much herring may be caught by any means in any given year. By last summer, the quota for the inner Gulf of Maine had been reduced over the previous two years from 60,000 metric tons to 45,000. As part of that overall limit, there has been a much smaller quota on the amount of herring that may be caught with fixed gear such as weirs and stop seines, which are used to block off inlets after herring swim in.
Fixed-gear fishermen have an overall annual quota of 500 metric tons. Like their counterparts on the open water, they have had restrictions on how many days each week they can fish. Now, they no longer are restricted to which days of the week they are allowed to trap herring.
Terry Stockwell, director of external affairs for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said Monday that the exemption was approved by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission at its meeting last month. The exemption could help Maine lobstermen who also use fixed gear to catch more of their own bait, he said.
Last year fixed-gear fishermen came close to reaching their 500 metric-ton quota, but they fell short, he said, likely because fishing conditions were not good on the few days they were allowed to catch fish. Starting June 1 this year, when the herring season starts again, it won’t matter what days they fish, he said. Their only restriction will be the annual fixed-gear quota.
So for a weir in Jonesport, for example, the fishing-days exemption for fixed gear might help provide a more reliable supply of bait to local lobstermen, according to Stockwell.
“And if they do very well, bait might be available in Addison and Roque Bluffs,” he said.
Last year, despite the reduced quota for herring, the smaller purse seine boats that fish near shore did very well, Stockwell said.
“Fish stocks were close to shore and their catch rates were extremely high,” he said. “And then we had to put the brakes on.”
The reason for this was that larger midwater trawlers, which each year have to wait until Oct. 1 before they are allowed in the same area, were concerned that the area’s overall annual quota would be met before they had a chance to catch any. So regulators sharply reduced the allowable days at sea for purse seiners in September. The fishing-days limit went from three days a week to four for the whole month, which made lobstermen worry about how much fresh bait they would have during their traditionally busy fall fishing season.
Maine’s lobster industry alone uses 60,000 metric tons of bait each year, which is 15,000 metric tons more than the annual herring quota in the Gulf of Maine. Herring also is used as bait in other fisheries and as food in zoos and is canned for human consumption. To make sure they have enough bait, lobstermen supplement their supply with herring caught in Canada and less desirable species such as menhaden, Stockwell said.
Though there was some controversy within the herring fleet last year about how the annual quota played out, the new fishing-days exemption for fixed gear does not appear to be a concern for trawler operators and purse seiners, according to Mary Beth Tooley, a Camden-based representative of a fishing boat coalition known as the Small Pelagic Group. She said the quota set aside for fixed gear is “very low” and that the exemption is not likely to affect the catch for purse seiners or midwater trawlers.
“I haven’t heard any concerns about this,” Tooley said.
Of bigger interest is a herring stock assessment that is scheduled for June, according to fishing industry representatives. Stockwell said the assessment would determine what the annual herring quota is for each of the next three years.
“Everyone is cautiously optimistic it might result in an increase in the quota,” he said.
Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said Monday that all the anecdotal evidence she has heard suggests that herring populations are healthy. She said that although there is no guarantee, she could not imagine the quota would be lowered.
“That’s the noose around our neck because that quota is so low,” she said. “We will watch [the assessment] very closely.”
Stockwell said that to help state regulators determine how many Maine fishermen target species such as herring or dogfish, a bill is being proposed in the Legislature that would require fishermen who target such species to get a specific fishing license. Regulators know how much herring is caught each year, he said, but they do not document how much effort goes into catching the annual quota.
As it is, anyone with a generic Maine commercial fishing license, which applies to everything but shellfish, can fish for herring, Stockwell said. Fishermen are supposed to indicate on their licenses what kind of gear they use, but the state does not keep records of what kinds of fin fish each licensed commercial fisherman pursues and catches.
The legislative proposal for a specialized fishing license is still being revised, Stockwell said, so it does not yet have a formal bill number and has not yet been scheduled for a public hearing. He said many fishermen have indicated they support creating such a license.
“We do the best we can,” Stockwell said of keeping track of how much each commercially fished species is being targeted. “The idea is to have better monitoring.”