Cutting the region’s herring catch in half would significantly harm the state’s lobster fishery. At the same time, the fishery cannot continue to be managed with spotty oversight and catches that are so large the whole herring fishery could be hurt. To resolve this, stricter management of herring fishing must be accompanied by help for lobstermen to diversify their bait supply.
Regional fisheries managers recommended that the herring catch limit be cut by more than half next year. They said this was necessary because of uncertainty as to the number of herring in the region. They initially proposed that the catch limit be dropped to 90,000 metric tons. This year, the limit is 194,000 tons.
After hearing from lobstermen last week, a committee of members from the New England Fisheries Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission decided on a smaller reduction in the allowable catch — 145,000 metric tons. The full New England Fisheries Manage-ment Council is expected to take up the issue next month.
Herring are the main source of lobster bait. According to the state, more than $8 million worth of herring was caught by Maine boats last year. Most was sold as lobster bait, with some being processed, mostly as canned sardines.
A big cut in the amount of herring harvested will translate into an increase in its price, driving up costs for lobster fishermen.
In addition to its use as bait and food, herring is an important prey for larger marine fish and mammals, leading to concerns that too large a harvest could disrupt ecosystems.
While this concern is well-founded, it is unclear whether the current catch limits are apt to cause such problems.
Regulators should not move ahead with catch limits before determining there is a problem to be solved. Noting the “high degrees of uncertainty” surrounding New England’s herring population, Sen. Olympia Snowe has asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to reconsider the catch limits.
“I will not stand by and allow this fishery and the businesses it supports to be decimated based on information so woefully outdated that scientists themselves complain about its applicability,” she wrote in a letter to the head of NOAA, Jane Lubchenco.
Sen. Snowe also noted that lobstermen used redfish before herring became the preferred bait. She asked the agency to review whether redfish could again be a viable alternative. Researchers at the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute have also looked at using alternative bait and less bait. The re-search has been fruitful, but inconsistent because of a lack of funding.
Using fewer traps would also reduce demand for bait.
Putting money into such research, along with better assessing how many herring are in the ocean, will help address valid concerns while keeping the lobster industry afloat.