BRUNSWICK, Maine — For the second year in a row, federal regulators have dramatically reduced the amount of Atlantic herring fishermen can haul after scientists counted far fewer juvenile Atlantic herring in the waters from Canada to New Jersey.
While determining that Atlantic herring, the chief bait used by lobstermen, is not overfished, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said “recruitment” — the number of juvenile herring — is so low that last Friday they finalized a rule reducing by more than half the amount of Atlantic herring that fishermen may catch in 2019, from 50,000 metric tons to 21,000 metric tons.
Regulators hope the dramatic cut will prevent or reduce the risk of the fishery becoming depleted, NOAA said in a release.
The new limit has prompted predictions of bait shortages and sky-high prices and has members of Maine’s fishing community describing the situation as “catastrophic” and “devastating.”
“It’s huge,” Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, said. “Prices are going to go up, and lobstermen are going to be struggling to find as much bait as they are accustomed to.”
Wyatt Anderson has run the bait business at O’Hara Bait in Rockland since 1985.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said Wednesday. “They cut 60 million pounds. There’s nothing to replace that. This is catastrophic. I have no idea how this is going to work out. There will be days in September and October when guys won’t be doing a haul.”
“It’s just so extreme, and the trickle-down is going to be terrible,” said Jennie Bichrest, owner of Purse Line Bait in Phippsburg.
Bichrest said not only will fishermen, lobstermen and bait dealers be affected financially, but so will truckers who carry bait and salt dealers such as Maine Salt in Bangor, which provides salt for fresh bait — salt that won’t be necessary if most of the bait is frozen.
“This is scary because everything eats herring in the Gulf of Maine, and it is the bottom of the food web,” Martens said.
During the past two decades, the herring fishery has seen a series of “step reductions,” from 160,000 metric tons to 140,000 metric tons, and then to 100,000 metric tons, where it hovered for a number of years.
Federal regulators usually set the herring catch limit every three years, but after the number of fish began decreasing, they started examining the stock each year, according to Deirdre Boelke, fishery analyst for Atlantic Herring at the New England Fishery Management Council.
The stock assessment in June 2018 concluded that “although herring was not overfished and overfishing was not occurring in 2017, poor recruitment would likely result in a substantial decline in herring biomass. The stock assessment estimated that recruitment had been at historic lows during the most recent five years (2013-2017).”
Last year, regulators reduced the catch from 100,000 metric tons fo 50,000 metric tons, Boelke said. “The idea would be to act very conservatively now in hopes [of helping] recruitment.”
Had the federal government not reduced this year’s limit by as much, regulators likely would have had no choice at the end of the year when catch numbers started filtering in. The federal Magnuson-Stevens Act dictates catch amounts, and the agency would not be allowed to set a limit that would result in more than a 50 percent chance of herring being overfished, Boelke said.
Fishermen in Maine say they had braced for a drastic reduction, but the announced limit was even worse than expected.
Gerry Cushman, who has fished for 30 years on the Bugcatcha out of Port Clyde and now also runs the Port Clyde Fishermen’s Cooperative, said Wednesday that he hopes Mainers are aware of the potential looming disaster.
Cushman has already obtained a permit to build a storage facility in Warren “as an insurance policy,” so he can buy bait when it’s available and freeze it until it’s needed. He’ll continue to buy bait through the state’s primary dealers — Purse Line Bait, O’Haras and Superior Bait in Port Clyde — but, he said, “I’m nervous that my co-op and the co-ops that I deal with through Cape Seafood may not have enough bait to keep our fishermen going.”
Bichrest of Purse Line Bait said the low quota is going to force her to prioritize who gets the bait she has — and that bait could rise from 25 to 35 cents a pound to as much as 80 cents to $1 per pound. Still, she said, “Bait dealers will survive. … I don’t know how the herring boats are going to survive.”
One of the purse seiners she knows pays $60,000 per year for insurance on his boat and has a $19,000 monthly boat payment. Another 30-year fishermen was about to buy the boat he’s fished on for six years — until the herring decision was made.
“He’s bailing,” she said. “These captains can’t support a crew.”
Kristan Porter, a Cutler lobsterman and president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said his organization opposed the “extremely conservative” cuts, although he added, “Obviously, the industry depends on herring, so we don’t want to overfish … in the long run it’s probably better, but for the short term it’s going to be hard.”
Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said Wednesday that he has been meeting with bait dealers in groups and individually.
“People are scrambling to find alternatives,” he said.
Keliher said he acknowledged to the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee recently that he did not think the state would be able to secure enough bait to compensate for the cuts and that he expects shortages, especially during peaks.
But R. Zack Klyver, who runs Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. and is a member of the New England Fishery Management Council’s herring advisory board, said Wednesday that the herring really do seem to be scarce, and he’s concerned about what that means for the Gulf of Maine as a whole.
In 2017, Klyver’s boat saw at least one large whale on 90 percent of trips, but then it dropped to about 34 percent, he said, because whales don’t show up if there are no herring.
Last year, he changed his business plan and took his boat to Grand Manan, New Brunswick — 55 miles away — to see whales.
“It’s important to remember that while the cut we’re experiencing right now is really dramatic, it’s necessary given the information we have,” he said. “We can’t not protect this stock. We need it to help maintain the lobster industry and the ocean going forward.”
Klyver said he hopes the herring recruitment is temporary, but he worries that what’s happening in the ecosystem in general may be to blame. Climate change leading to iceberg melting and lower salinity in the Gulf of Maine — or less plankton — could be factors, he said.
Keliher said he is working on ways to mitigate the potential crisis — exploring everything from alternative sources of bait to fishermen installing refrigerators and freezers on their own property to store bait.
The DMR has worked with The Nature Conservancy in recent years on an initiative to salt and freeze alewives in order to make that potential bait fish last longer.
Keliher also said he planned to meet Glen Cooke of Cooke Aquaculture in New Brunswick, who also owns Omega Protein in Virginia, which harvests about 85 percent of the menhaden quota, about using waste from their fishmeal plant as bait.
Currently, Mainers use menhaden, rockfish and redfish in addition to herring, and alewives seasonally, but Keliher said bait that has not been used in the past is being sourced, both internationally and domestically.
One DMR staff member is also working directly with the state of Illinois regarding importing dead, frozen Asian carp as bait.
“Our concern is, is it safe [and] are there any biosecurity issues,” he said. “I think there’s going to be some really good movement in this area.”
But Bichrest said Wednesday that the idea of importing an invasive species like Asian carp, even if it’s dead and frozen solid, makes her nervous.
Within the past few years, she heard a state biologist warn against doing just that, she said.
“Whatever pathogens the darn thing is carrying … I don’t think we should be using it,” she said, adding that she also worries that desperate fishermen “will use anything” when they can’t get their usual bait.
“It’s a big concern, especially if they were to bring in cheap bait from southeast Asia,” something that is currently prohibited in the U.S., Martens said. “They’ve done that in the past, and invasive species and pathogens are huge unknowns that definitely need to be worried about. We have a horrible track record of doing that kind of thing.”
Martens said alternative sources of bait might be a solution, but that the infrastructure around the state to store bait “is very, very weak.”
“The herring stock is in bad shape, but we haven’t done our job as a state to build an infrastructure to withstand something like this,” he said. He pointed to proposed bonds that might fund long-term bait storage.
Keliher said he isn’t aware of any funding available to help mitigate the reduction, but said, “It is the true resiliency of the Maine lobster industry that makes me think they’re going to be able to weather the next two years.”
“I think people are hopeful that the measures will be enough,” Boelke said. “There are some potential positive signs going on with herring farther north in Canada, and people are hoping that trickles down and we see that here, too. It’s just very early for us to see that here in the U.S. where we focus on … larger fish.”
Cushman said he hopes for the best, but that his new freezer will be his “insurance policy” in case the worst happens.
“Lobstering is so important for Maine,” he said. “I just hope people are aware of the situation we could be in.”
“It’s the lifeblood of all the coastal communities,” Porter said of the fishing industry. “If guys aren’t making money, they’re not having carpentry work done, not buying a new car. It could be devastating … 2019 is going to be very interesting.”