2016 Herring Season Tumultuous for Many

Maine lobstermen experienced a scarcity of herring for bait and a sharp rise in its price this summer. Yet, according to many sources, herring stocks in the Gulf of Maine are robust. In the words of the National Marine Fisheries Service, “Atlantic herring stocks are not overfished and overfishing is not occurring.” So why did herring availability become such an issue for lobstermen this year?

Because herring migrate, they are considered an interstate fish species. Herring management is under the authority of both the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). The amount of herring that can be harvested each year is set by the NEFMC on a three-year basis. That amount, in turn, is determined by a stock assessment, which also takes place every three years. The latest stock assessment was released in 2015; herring fishermen are operating under the NEFMC’s 2016-2018 quota.

The annual catch limit (ACL), or quota, for herring is 231 million pounds, a 2.6% decrease from the 2013-2015 quota. The NEFMC allocates the quota among four fishing management areas. The two management areas most important to Maine lobstermen are Area 3 (Georges Bank) and Area 1A (inshore Gulf of Maine).

Each one of the four management areas receives its own share of the annual herring quota. Area 1A received 66.79 million pounds this year; Area 3 received 90.16 million pounds. To finetune the system even further, the NEFMC divides the season into two fishing periods, from January 1 to May 31 and from June 1 to December 31. “NEFMC and ASMFC together set the overall quota, but it’s ASMFC that determines how much can be caught by season. The total 1A quota is a joint action. But how much is allocated to period 2 versus period 3 is an ASMFC decision,” said Matt Cieri, a biologist at the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR).

The O’Hara Corporation herring trawler Starlight was re-rigged this summer as a seiner in order to fish in Area 1A during the summer.
Photo courtesy of O’Hara Corp.

The Area 1A quota is caught in two sub-periods: 72.8% of the quota can be caught between June 1 and September 31; 27.2% can be caught between October 1 to the end of the year. The NEFMC mandates that only vessels rigged for seining can catch herring in Area 1A from June 1 to September 31; mid-water trawls may fish that area beginning October 1. The ASMFC, in turn, sets regulations that control fishing effort, such things as days out from the fishery.

Typically, herring trawlers, like the F/V Providian (owned by the New England Fish Company) which can hold one million pounds of herring, fish for herring on Georges Bank. The Area 3 quota is available year round, thus these vessels may stay on Georges Bank all summer if conditions are good. When June 1 rolls around, the seiner fleet starts fishing in Area 1A, adding additional herring into the bait stream.

But in 2015 and again in 2016, this scenario changed. In 2015 the herring showed up in Area 3 but so too did large schools of haddock. Herring boats are allowed to catch a very limited amount of haddock as bycatch when trawling for herring; if they catch too much haddock, then the herring fishery is closed until the next year. In 2015 herring fishermen caught more haddock than allowed, which shut the Georges Bank herring fishery in October until May, 2016. Without winter fishing on Georges Bank, bait dealers had very low inventories of herring at the start of this year’s lobster season, making demand more intense.

Then, according to Wyatt Anderson, who manages fresh bait for the O’Hara Corporation in Rockland, a big storm swept through Area 3, just a month after the offshore fleet resumed fishing in June. The fish that were present in May vanished. “The fish disappeared. They didn’t come back until late in the summer,” he said.

Danny Fill, captain of the seiner Western Wave, and for 25 years captain of the Western Sea, took a different view. “They [herring] are not wintering over on Georges like they did ten, 12 years ago. They used to stop there. They are not off of New Jersey and New York as they were years ago,” he said. Due to the lack of fishing opportunities on Georges Bank, in late June several trawlers decided to fish as seiners. Others, such as the Challenger and Endeavor out of Gloucester stayed tied to the dock without landings for most of the summer and into the fall. “The Starlight was rerigged to seine. It hadn’t been used to seine in several years so it took us about two weeks to get it done,” Anderson said. The 89-foot Starlight is one of two East Coast trawlers owned by the O’Hara Corporation. Other large boats such as the Providian also re-rigged as seiners in order to fish in Area 1A.

“Once everyone changed over and moved in they were chasing all kinds of fish around,” Anderson continued. There were a lot of herring available in Area 1A and the boats quickly filled their holds, landed and unloaded, then went back for more. The seiners found the same abundance. “It was like five years ago,” Fill said. “I never saw so many fish.”

The quota for herring, however, did not change. Between June 1 and September 30, only 72.8% of the 66.79 million pounds could be landed. With the re-rigged trawlers added to the seiners fishing in the area, it was clear that the quota could be reached well before the four months came to an end. If that occurred, lobstermen would have very little herring bait available during the busiest time of the season. And with virtually no landings coming in from Area 3, it was clear that there would not be enough herring to supply the bait market.

Department of Marine Resources (DMR) Commissioner Patrick Keliher consulted with lobstermen, herring fishermen and bait dealers on the situation. “I would characterize the meetings we held as positive,” Keliher said. “It provided an opportunity for industry to share with me their concerns about the bait supply. Although there wasn’t a consensus reached about what to do, there was strong agreement that something had to be done to slow the rate of harvest of herring.” Keliher promulgated emergency rules in early July to reduce herring landings in an effort to make the quota last. Herring vessels were only allowed to land their catch on two consecutive days each week. The boats could only land 600,000 pounds at a time (equivalent to 15 truckloads). A herring boat could offload its catch to a carrier vessel just once a week. “In the end, the regulation we put in place to restrict landing days achieved the goal of maintaining the valuable live bait supply despite the lack of herring being landed from offshore,” Keliher said. 

“They had to do something. We all talked and it was a gentlemen’s agreement. But that threw everything out of balance,” Anderson said. With supply limited, fresh herring suddenly skyrocketed in price. “Bait is a volume business. I could only get 600,000 pounds each week. I had to supply a customer in Vinalhaven and one in Bar Harbor about 150,000 pounds so that left me 450,000 pounds for everyone else. I had no volume,” Anderson said. He saw the price of herring sold by other bait companies rise by 75% which, he said, “was just greed.”

Meanwhile, the smaller seiners were dealing with new boats in an area they previously had to themselves. “We get one little slice of the pie of quota. There are four of us that have been fishing on it for the last ten or twelve years,” explained Fill. “Add more boats to that slice and soon there will only be crumbs for any of us.” That conflict was exacerbated, according to Fill, by the fact that the trawlers who re-rigged to seine could go back to trawling for herring later in the year. “They can move around and we can’t,” he said. “I know, they are only trying to make a living but we’ve been at such a low quota for years now and we’ve managed to make a living. Then they cut us back because of the trawlers. That is not fair.”

The end result was nearly everyone – the lobstermen, the bait dealers, the herring fishermen – ended the year unhappy. In the future Fill wants to see the four seiners who have been operating in Area 1A the longest receive a set allocation of the herring quota, perhaps 15 truckloads a week. “The trawlers could get ten truckloads maybe and anyone new would get five,” he suggested. Anderson is already thinking about 2017 and the new herring stock assessment that the New England Fisheries Management Council will be completing. “After they finished the menhaden assessment the quota went up by just 3%. What’s going to happen with herring?” he wondered. He plans to have the Sunlight ready to rerig next year as well as the Starlight in an effort to make sure enough bait comes through his doors during the summer months. “You need everyone there to fish to supply lobstermen with bait at a reasonable price. You need to have different types of boats fishing in order to get the most out of the fishery,” he said.