Herring catch limits could plummet

Posted Sept. 21, 2009, at 8:17 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:57 a.m.

The availability of herring along the coast of Maine, where much of the catch is used as bait for the state’s $250 million lobster industry, is a little bit better this fall than it was last year.

Next year, however, could be a different story.

In 2008, only four days of herring fishing were allowed in the inner Gulf of Maine for all of September, when the lobster industry usually gets busy. This year, herring fishermen can catch herring four days each week, from Sunday evening until Thursday evening.

The reason for this, according to fishing officials, is that regulators took steps to avoid having too much of the annual quota of 43,150 metric tons for the inner Gulf of Maine landed earlier in the year. By limiting herring fishing to two days a week in June, July and August, it has reduced the possibility that too much of the quota would be caught before Oct. 1.

But according to fisheries officials, the outlook for 2010 is bleak. A new requirement of the reauthorized federal Magnuson-Stevens Act, which protects fish stock, is that the management plan for each fishery has to be updated, and each stock assessment now has to be reviewed by independent scientists. The scientists make their recommendation to the New England Fishery Management Council, which then sets the quota.

The scientists who reviewed this summer’s stock assessment for Atlantic herring came up with a lower recommendation of the allowable catch than regulators and officials had made in prior years. As a result, the annual overall quota for herring in 2010 likely is going to be 90,000 metric tons, which is 104,000 metric tons less than this year’s limit of 194,000 metric tons. That larger quota is parceled among four fishing areas that include both inner and outer areas of the Gulf of Maine, one directly south of the gulf, and another west of Nantucket.

Fishery officials in Maine estimate that this likely will mean that only 20,000 metric tons of herring can be caught in the inner gulf of Maine next year. This means the state’s lobster industry, which generally uses about 60,000 metric tons of herring and other fish for bait each year, will be faced with finding a significant new source of bait, despite a commercial fishing climate that seems to result in more restrictive catch limits for almost every species each year.

“It’s going to be severe,” said Terry Stockwell, director of external affairs for Maine Department of Marine Resources. “There’s no way to sugarcoat it.”

If the quota is lowered, it will be the third time in four years that the limit has been reduced. The catch limit for the inner gulf of Maine was 60,000 metric tons before 2007, when it was reduced to 55,000 metric tons. Last year it was reduced to 43,150.

Stockwell said that the recommendation of the independent scientists, who are known by regulators as the Scientific & Statistical Committee, is nondebatable under federal rules. He said the recommendation accounts only for one of the factors that regulators must consider and that the final quota could end up being even lower.

NEFMC is expected to discuss next year’s herring quota when it meets Wednesday, Sept. 23, in Plymouth, Mass., and to make its final decision in November.

“Then it’s going to be really messy,” Stockwell said.

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said Friday that the anticipated lower availability of herring next year will add to the myriad economic challenges lobstermen already face. Diesel prices may not be as high as they were last summer, but lobstermen continue to get unusually low prices for their catch and many are dealing with significant added expenses from having to use new gear that is aimed at preventing whales from getting tangled in fishing lines.

“There’s absolutely no breathing room,” McCarron said. “I expect our quota [for herring] will get cut about in half.”

Lobstermen also sometimes use other fish such as pogies or redfish for bait, McCarron has said, but the supply of those species are small enough that they cannot make up for a lack of herring.

Mary Beth Tooley, a Camden-based spokeswoman for fishing boats based in Maine and Massachusetts, said Monday that the assessment in June was the first assessment of herring stocks since 2006. There are enough questions about the June assessment that NEFMC might decide to have another assessment done, she said, but a new assessment cannot be completed in time to affect the quotas that have to be set for next year. If the quota is readjusted upward, she said, it wouldn’t be until 2011.

“This is where we’re at,” Tooley said. “It’s pretty grim.”

What such a reduction in quota might mean for the last remaining sardine cannery in the United States is not clear. The Stinson Seafood plant in Gouldsboro, which two years ago employed approximately 150 people, depends on herring for the millions of cans of sardines it produces each year.

In keeping with an agreement that the plant’s owners signed with the state in 2000, the facility produces at least 450,000 cases annually and will remain open at least until 2013.

Peter Colson, plant manager for the Stinson Seafood cannery in the Gouldsboro village of Prospect Harbor, which is owned by Bumble Bee Foods, said Monday in a voice mail message that he was not authorized to release any information to the press.

A voice mail message left Monday afternoon with a spokesperson for Bumble Bee Foods, which has its corporate headquarters in San Diego, was not returned.

The number of days herring can be caught is expected to decrease to two days a week on Oct. 1, according to Stockwell. That date is when federal law allows midwater trawlers, larger boats that tend to be based out of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, back into the inner Gulf of Maine to fish herring. Before that date, only smaller purse-seine fishing boats, which tend to be the kind that operate out of Maine ports, are allowed to fish in the inner gulf area.

Officials said that the supply of herring, though it is not ideal now, is not expected to become any more scarce between Oct. 1 and the end of the year. Mid-water trawlers catch large volumes of fish and should be able to keep up with demand, which decreases as the busy lobster fishing season slows down further into the fall, they said.

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