ELLSWORTH, Maine — Due to concerns about a North Atlantic herring stock assessment that was taken in June, fishery regulators have decided to call for another assessment on the fishery to be done in 2010.
This summer’s assessment could result in a reduction of the catch limit for herring in 2010 by half, fishing industry officials in Maine have said. According to state statistics, $7.2 million worth of herring was caught in Maine last year, most of which was used for bait by the state’s $250 million lobster industry. Herring makes up the majority of the estimated 60,000 metric tons of bait used each year by Maine lobstermen.
Industry officials are concerned that if the New England Fishery Management Council approves a recommendation by independent scientists to reduce the overall annual quota from 194,000 metric tons to 90,000 metric tons, it could have dire consequences for lobstermen, herring fishermen and businesses such as canneries that depend on a steady supply of herring for their livelihoods.
Todd Goodell, a Bar Harbor lobsterman, said Friday that a sharp reduction in the availability of bait, and the resulting increase in its price, would aggravate the decreasing profitability of the lobster industry. In the past year, the price lobstermen have earned for their catch has fallen to levels not seen since the 1990s, while new federal mandates about whale-safe fishing gear have increased their expenses. And bait prices, like the cost of diesel fuel, already have gone up sharply over the past several years.
“This is going to be devastating for us,” Goodell said Friday about the expected herring reduction. “We’re going to be [left] sitting on the shore.”
Because of the potential economic impact and questions about why the latest assessment has resulted in such a different outlook than previous assessments, the council voted overwhelmingly Thursday in favor of conducting a new benchmark assessment for herring in 2010. Unlike the interim or update assessment this past June, a benchmark assessment is a comprehensive effort to gather and analyze new data about the relative health and population of a species.
Terry Stockwell, director of external affairs for Maine Department of Marine Resources, said Friday that the council’s vote in Plymouth, Mass., was in favor of having another assessment done next year as early as possible. He said the council also voted in favor of asking the scientists, known as the Scientific & Statistical Committee, to reconsider its recommended 2010 quota of 90,000 metric tons.
Stockwell said that to get a new assessment done, the council will have to convince federal fisheries researchers to fit it into their assessment schedule for next year. Currently, none of the species assessments planned for 2010 includes herring.
“Given the gravity of the situation, we’re trying to accelerate the schedule,” Stockwell said.
Mary Beth Tooley, a Camden-based spokeswoman for a group of fishing boats known as the Small Pelagic Group, agreed with Stockwell, who, like her, has a seat on the council.
“We need to get on that schedule,” Tooley said Friday. “At the moment, we’re not.”
Tooley said that unless the statistical committee decides to revise its recommendation, the proposed reduced limits for 2010 are not likely to change. If a new assessment next year has any effect, it wouldn’t manifest until 2011.
“In the short term, I’m not sure we’re going to get any immediate relief,” she said.
Tooley said the council will begin work early next month to divide the overall 2010 quota among the four fishing areas off New England. The four areas include the inner and outer portions of the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank and west of Nantucket.
If the herring quota is reduced, it will be the third time in four years it has happened.
For the inner Gulf of Maine, where most Maine-based herring boats operate, the catch limit was 60,000 metric tons before 2007, when it was reduced to 55,000 metric tons. That figure was reduced to 43,150 metric tons last year and remains the same for 2009.
If the quota for the inner gulf is reduced by half, as fishermen and industry officials fear it might be, the limit for that area could be as low as 20,000 metric tons.
The council is expected to make its final decision on the 2010 overall herring quota in November.