PORTLAND, Maine — Russell Libby turned to his crew at CBS Lobster and Bait on Union Wharf on Monday afternoon, telling them another boat was due in five minutes. Libby also told them it was close to sinking.
That turned out to be an exaggeration but not by much.
Before long, a small fishing boat came chugging around the corner. The Deja Vu II was so loaded with pogies, the open transom was several inches underwater.
The crew was jubilant.
“That’s the most I’ve had on there in 20 years,” said Capt. Dan Harriman of Cape Elizabeth.
Dozens of plastic barrels stood stacked on the vessel’s deck. What little open space remained was awash in fish. The crew stood ankle-deep in them. Even the engine compartment was full of pogies.
“We’ve got some down forward — we really do,” crewman Corey Doughty shouted up to the dockworkers. Doughty is also from Cape Elizabeth and Harriman’s cousin.
Monday marked the start of the state’s commercial pogie fishing season. The small, oily fish are used as bait in Maine’s $1 billion lobster industry. With recent sharp cuts in Atlantic herring quotas, pogies are an increasingly valuable and sought-after bait fish. So much so, Maine officials implemented a new, pogie-specific fishing license this year.
“Fortunately we have a significant run of pogies up here right now,” said Maine Department of Marine Resources spokesperson Jeff Nichols. “That’s why we’ve been regulating it, to ensure we have bait throughout the summer.”
Clockwise from left: Fisherman Corey Doughty points to the forward compartment aboard the Deja Vu II at CBS Lobster and Bait on Union Wharf in Portland on Monday June 14, 2021. Doughty said the crew ran out of room for fish on the deck and had to store some in the engine compartment; A herring gull snacks on a stray pogie; Pogies sit in a barrel aboard the Deja Vu II. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
Previously, fishermen with a general commercial pelagic and anadromous fishing licenses could also take pogies, which are formally known as menhaden. That license also includes fish such as Atlantic herring, Atlantic mackerel, squid, butterfish, sea bass, smelt and shad.
But late last year a new law was passed, creating a pogies-only license to ensure more accurate catch reporting.
The complete set of pogie fishery rules are, like all fishery regulations, complicated. But generally speaking, the weekly commercial vessel limit is 23,800 pounds or 68 barrels and the fishery is only open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. When the federal quotas are met, the season will close.
In 2019 — the most recent year with accurate numbers — Maine pogie fishermen landed 24.9 million pounds of fish worth $6.8 million at the docks, according to state recordkeeping. The average price per pound was $.27.
That was up almost 10 million pounds and $2.3 million from the year before.
It’s too soon to tell how valuable this year’s catch will be. It depends on the number of fish. For the decade prior to 2016, pogies were nearly absent from Maine waters.
“My understanding is that it’s a cyclical fisherty and we can’t always count on them being here,” Nichols said.
Given the limited resource and it’s growing value, there has been some controversy among harvesters and buyers over exactly how many of the new licenses should be issued. It’s unclear how many boats fished for pogies last year but state fishing bulletins pegged the number at over 100.
As of Monday, Nichols said, there were exactly 245 vessels licensed to fish pogies in Maine waters. How many of those boats went out Monday is unknown.
When workers at CBS Lobster and Bait finished unloading Harriman’s boat, the final tally was 39 barrels. That’s more than half his weekly quota.
“Hmm. I was hoping for 40,” Harriman said. “But I think it’ll be alright. There’s a demand for bait and we’ll fill it again tomorrow.”