Steaming Ahead: May 2012

First published in the MLA Newsletter, May, 2012

A perfect storm is forming which could deal a devastating blow to the bait supply for the lobster industry. Management changes for Maine’s two primary bait sources – herring and menhaden – are underway. A recent court decision over one of our spring favorites, alewives, could lead to further restrictions in the herring plan. And the status of alewives is being carefully reviewed as part of a petition to have them listed as an endangered species.

The fate of the herring management plan, known as Amendment 5, is extremely important to our industry because herring continues to serve as our primary bait. Data from the Maine Department of Marine Resources indicates that herring was used in 59% of traps hauled by Maine lobstermen in 2011. Although still very significant, herring use has fallen considerably since the cuts to the Area 1A herring quota began in 2007 when herring was used in 83% of traps hauled.

The proposed changes to the herring management plan focus on improving monitoring the commercial catch. The MLA submitted comments to the New England Fishery Management Council supporting 100% observer coverage for the largest herring vessels which account for 98% of the landings, but urged managers to ensure that the cost of observers be carefully monitored and on par with rates paid in other regions of the US. Given the importance of sustainably managing the herring fishery, the MLA urged that government funds be secured to pay for comprehensive observer coverage.

As the primary consumer of herring, any cost incurred by the herring fleet will inevitably be passed onto lobstermen. The MLA’s weekly monitoring of bait prices shows that the lobster industry has already absorbed a nearly 30% increase in the average cost of bait over the three years from 2007 when herring sold for an average of $21/bushel to 2010 when a bushel of herring sold for an average of $27. With the tightening of profit margins in the lobster industry due to soft boat price and increased operating expenses, lobstermen cannot afford to absorb the cost of implementing comprehensive observer coverage in the herring industry.

Also of concern with the herring plan is the recent court decision which could lead to new monitoring requirements of alewives landed as bycatch. The level of accountability required under the new provisions of the Magnuson Act could lead to a shutdown of the fishery if established bycatch levels are exceeded. And any herring landed in excess of the allowed quota in one year is automatically deducted from the next’s year’s allowable catch limit.

As the Maine lobster industry has adjusted to reductions in the herring quota over the last 5 years, menhaden has become an increasingly important source of bait. DMR data indicates that menhaden was used in 22% of traps hauled in 2011, compared to 12% of traps hauled in 2006. And a recent survey conducted by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in 2011 shows that bait use varies by region of the coast with menhaden accounting for nearly 40% of the bait supply in Zone F.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is moving forward with a new management plan for menhaden, known as Amendment 2, to identify management strategies to significantly reduce the fishing mortality in the menhaden fishery. This will result in reductions in harvest and directly impact many of Maine’s lobstermen with anticipated bait shortages and increases in bait price.

The MLA strongly urged the Commission to complete a comprehensive new benchmark stock assessment of the menhaden resource using the best available modeling methods, best available data including a recent industry sponsored aerial survey and incorporate the recommendations put forward by the recent peer review panel before considering harvest restrictions. The MLA also supported the implementation of a timely, streamlined reporting system, with all dealers required to report on a weekly basis.

The Maine lobster industry has already made significant adjustments to respond to changes in the availability of bait. We have a substantially diversified the bait supply and added significant cold and frozen storage capacity. However, bringing in baits from regions outside the northwest Atlantic — such as from fresh water sources, the Pacific or from foreign countries — adds risk of introducing disease to our waters. The Lobster Advisory Council has worked with the University of Maine to identify and better understand some of these potentials risks. In response, the Legislature recently granted Maine DMR authority to regulate non-native baits in order to manage this risk.

The cumulative impacts of the changes to the herring and menhaden management plans, potential listing of alewives as endangered, and the state’s authority to authorize baits for use in the lobster fishery are likely to result in increased bait prices and could result in bait shortages.

The MLA invests a significant amount of time advocating for a sustainable and healthy bait supply for Maine lobstermen. And with record numbers of lobster being landed, this work is becoming more important than ever.

As always, stay safe on the water