ELLSWORTH, Maine — With the help of several fishermen, scientists are hoping to get a better idea of how many herring usually can be found in the inner Gulf of Maine.
What they find could have implications for Maine’s lobster industry, which contributes hundreds of millions of dollars each year to the state economy and which heavily depends upon the availability of herring for its bait supply.
Using $532,000 from the Maine Technology Asset Fund, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute plans to outfit 10 lobster boats next summer with acoustic sonar systems to help estimate the size of the herring population in the inner gulf, also known to herring industry officials as Area 1A. The grant and project were announced earlier this month.
Jason Stockwell, a research scientist at GMRI, said Tuesday that previous studies about herring stocks in the inner gulf are outdated and were relatively limited in their scope. This study’s goal of using 10 lobster boats, he said, is to cover a lot of spawning grounds at the same time.
“If we can get a good biomass estimate from the acoustic survey, that will tell us a lot,” Stockwell said. “No one has ever done a complete assessment of Area 1A.”
The project depends on another $400,000 in federal funding for it to get under way next summer, according to Stockwell. The money is expected to be approved in the 2011 federal budget, he said.
The lack of concrete scientific data about the prevalence of herring in the Gulf of Maine and the northwest Atlantic Ocean led federal regulators last year to reduce the amount of herring that can be landed in the eastern United States, which has been a concern to industries that depend on the availability of the pelagic species.
Herring is the bait of choice for most of Maine’s 5,300 licensed commercial lobstermen and constitutes more than 70 percent of the lobster industry’s bait supply. Earlier this year when Bumble Bee Foods shut down the Stinson Seafood plant in Gouldsboro, the last sardine cannery in the country, it cited reductions in the total allowable catch for herring as its chief reason. The company laid off 128 people when it closed the cannery.
Stockwell said that if the study indicates there are more herring in the inner gulf than regulators previously estimated, it could lead to an increase in the area’s total allowable catch when a new federal herring assessment is conducted in June 2012. Federal regulators will have to consider data gathered from other studies in other areas when they revisit overall catch limits, he said.
Partnering with GMRI in the study is the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, Maine Department of Marine Resources and the federal National Marine Fisheries Service.
In a prepared statement, MLA Executive Director Patrice McCarron said that data from the study should help ensure that herring remain abundant, so that fishermen and communities that rely on lobster fishing for their livelihoods will have a future.
“Sustaining a steady, local source of bait is essential to the survival of the lobster industry and Maine’s coastal communities,” McCarron said.
According to officials with GMRI, Maine’s lobster industry has been estimated to contribute nearly $1 billion to the state’s economy each year in terms of overall financial impact. DMR statistics show that Maine lobstermen earned a total of $228 million in direct lobster landings revenue in 2009, which makes the industry by far the highest-earning fishery in the state.
By comparison, farmed Atlantic salmon, the next most lucrative fishery in Maine, last year generated a total of $38 million in direct revenue for aquaculture operations in the state.
According to Stockwell, lobstermen who apply and are selected to participate in the GMRI study will go out one night a week to take soundings of herring in the water column. Herring spawn at night, he said, and so are more likely to be found in quantifiable groups when it is dark.
The fishermen will be spread out along the coast and will go out on the same night each week to ensure each day’s data cover as wide an area as possible, he said.
“This is a great approach to cover the space and time aspects of it,” Stockwell said.
A herring boat and its crew also will be hired to try to catch some of the herring identified by sonar, he said, to help determine the accuracy of the sonar readings.
Stockwell said if more research funds can be secured, he hopes to conduct additional herring sonar surveys in 2012 and maybe even 2013.
“We’re hoping to do a second year to look at year-to-year variation, which also is very important,” Stockwell said. “I would do three [years] if I could.”