Herring Bait

The 800-pound Gorilla in the Room

by Laurie Schreiber

Fishermen’s Voice photo

SAINT ANDREWS, N.B.—The consistent availability of herring for use as bait in the lobster fishery throughout the season has proven a subject of considerable contention in the last few years.

“The bait situation in the States is the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” said Birch Harbor lobster dealer Dana Rice, during the 2017 Canadian/U.S. Lobstermen’s Town meeting held March 24-25 in Saint Andrews, New Brunswick. “For the last couple of years, it’s been very, very close to a shutdown” of the lobster fishery. “I don’t want to be an alarmist. But it’s something we need to pay a lot of attention to.” Another problem, he said, is that when bait becomes scarce, the price skyrockets. The biggest piece of the puzzle, he said, is to control fishing effort on herring so that the entire quota isn’t all landed by early September, thus leaving lobstermen with no bait for the rest of the month until the next quota opens up on Oct. 1.

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“It isn’t a conversation I like to have with any of my fisherman, because the last thing they want to hear is that we have a bad situation about bait,” Rice said. “But it is a very tight situation.” Two years ago, he noted, Maine’s lobster fishery came close to having no herring for bait in September. “That was not a good situation.”

Bill Adler, a lobster fisherman and industry leader from Massachusetts, said he was a member of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s herring section for years. Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire representatives met to work out a herring fishing schedule designed to maintain the catch of the summer’s quota, which starts June 1 in Area 1A, at a controlled rate so that it would last through the season. Area 1A is the largest of the herring management areas, covering from the Canadian border south, and the quota was the largest of those allowed through the year. To control the fishing rate, the herring section scheduled a certain number of landing days, which are also called “days out” of the fishery.

“We could adjust that as the summer started, to see if the catches were not too good or if we could increase it,” Adler said.

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The quota for Area 1A, comprising most of the Gulf of Maine, is intended to last from June 1 to Sept. 30, and if the quota is caught before Sept. 30, herring fishing must stop until the next quota kicks in on Oct. 1.

“It’s come very close to being closed down right in the middle of September, when it’s really needed,” Adler said.

Not much herring is usually caught in Area 2, which is south of Cape Cod, he said. Area 1B, which skirts the outside of the Gulf of Maine, has a small quota that’s usually caught quickly, he said. In Area 3, which is the Georges Bank area, the Massachusetts herring boats, which are mostly midwater trawlers, have a problem because of the presence of haddock within the herring grounds. There’s a federally imposed catch cap on herring that’s caught as bycatch by the midwater trawler fleet. If the fleet reaches the haddock cap before they’ve reached the herring cap, they must stop fishing for herring. The midwater trawl fleet isn’t allowed into Area 1A until Oct. 1. So the Area 3 herring quota is rarely entirely landed, because of the haddock cap, Adler said.

A lot of Massachusetts lobstermen use menhaden for bait, said Adler. Usually the menhaden is brought in from waters further to the south, he said. Menhaden is typically fished by seiners in the Chesapeake Bay for a Reedsville, Va., plant that makes fish oil, he said. But menhaden is increasingly shipped north for use as lobster bait, he said.

“We have another thing in the menhaden world. It’s called an episodic event,” continued Adler. That allows states that have a small quota menhaden, such as Maine, to apply for additional quota to take advantage of a behavior of menhaden that causes them to suddenly show up as a mass school in a particular area.

“Last year, Maine applied, and that allows a little more menhaden to be taken,” he said.

Massachusetts fishermen mainly use herring as bait, but also use menhaden, groundfish cuttings, and skate, he said.

“So there’s a bunch of baits,” he said. “But if you don’t watch those things, all of a sudden, you get the shutdown notice, and that hurts the lobster industry.”

Bar Harbor lobster fisherman Jon Carter said cutting back the herring fishermen causes the price of bait to rise.

“They shut down the fishery so they could only land one day a week,” he said. “We didn’t go without bait, but our bait price pretty much doubled because of it. In my opinion, they should have left well enough alone.”

Rice argued that the quota in combination with the days-out provision are the only management tools available right now to ensure herring remains available throughout the season.

“That one-day thing, if it hadn’t happened, probably there would have been three weeks in September when no herring would have been caught,” Rice said. He added, “I think it’s something Maine lobster fishermen need to be aware of, because potentially we could get shut down and it’s going to hurt everybody’s pocketbook.”