Fisherman Rob Bichrest cuts a purse seine net in half on Portland's waterfront on Monday morning. The $20,000 net is made for catching pogies but this year's new federal regulations only allow for smaller gear. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Fisherman Rob Bichrest of Cundy’s Harbor bent over a huge, black net at the Portland Fish Pier on Monday morning. Using a pair of orange-handled scissors, Bichrest then began cutting the $20,000 piece of fishing gear in half.

He had to.

Under current Atlantic menhaden fishing regulations, the 870-foot-long purse seine net was too large. It had to be reduced from 120 feet high, to just 48 feet.

Fishermen (from left) Sonny Rich, Wade Hunt, Phillip Smith and Rob Bichrest unload a net at the Portland Fish Pier on Monday morning. The group will spend the next few days working on their nets, getting them ready for pogie fishing season next month. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“I can’t use one that big,” said fisherman, Sonny Rich, who owns the net. “It’s not legal anymore.”

A purse seine is a floating and weighted net, set around a school of fish. The net is closed around the fish using a drawstring threaded through rings attached to the weighted part of the net at the bottom.

Atlantic menhaden are usually called “pogies” and used as lobster bait in Maine. Further south, in Virginia, they are rendered into oil and sold as omega-3 fish oil supplements.

Phillip Smith (left) holds the net tight while Rob Bichrest cuts it in half on Portland’s waterfront on Monday morning. The $20,000 net is made for catching pogies but this year’s new federal regulations only allow for smaller gear. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Herring is also used for lobster bait in Maine but shrinking federal quotas are making it difficult to find the baitfish and reducing their profitability. Instead, fishermen are increasingly looking to pogies to fill the gap. Consequently, state and federal regulators are tightening management on that fishery as well — including gear size and quotas.

The Atlantic Menhaden Management Board, which oversees the East Coast pogie fishery, approved a total allowable catch of 428 million pounds for each of the 2021 and 2022 seasons. That’s a 10 percent reduction from the 2020 season.

Of the total allowable catch, Maine was allocated 2.1 million pounds. Virginia was awarded nearly 80 percent of the total catch at 333 million pounds of fish.

Wade Hunt (left) works on re-hanging a pogie fishing net on the Portland waterfront on Monday. Rehanging involves attaching the net to a new set of floating buoys. Richard Clarke and Phillip Smith (right) haul on a net at the Portland Fish Pier on Monday morning. The pair were helping a crew get nets ready for pogie fishing next month. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Virginia is usually allowed the most, as that is where the country’s biggest rendering operations are located. The majority of Virginia’s pogie fleet sails from Reedville — a town named for Elijah W. Reed, a Maine sea captain who established the fishery there in the 19th century.

Maine’s pogie season starts June 14. It will continue until the quota is filled.

Watch more:

Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.