First published in Landings, September, 2017 

Up and down the Maine coast one hears the same laments from lobstermen: “Herring! I need more herring!” followed by “The price of bait is killing me!”

It’s been an unusual summer for herring fishermen and lobstermen alike. Last summer, the surge of herring catches in Area 1A (inshore Gulf of Maine) caused the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) to take stringent measures to slow herring landings in July in order to make the second trimester quota last through September. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) quickly followed suit. Herring supplies squeaked into September but the cost of the prized fish skyrocketed.

This year ASMFC set landings rules early in the season, restricting herring fishermen to landing only three days each week and no more than 400,000 pounds per week (10 truckloads). But instead of an overflow of fish, as in the previous year, landings were spotty. By the end of June, ASMFC relaxed its rules allowing four landing days and 600,000 pounds per week (15 truckloads). With landings continuing to trickle in, by the end of July, the rules were further loosened to landing five days a week and up to 680,000 pounds (17 truckloads). Furthermore, vessels could now transfer more of their catch to a carrier vessel, thus allowing the seiners to remain at sea longer. Small-mesh bottom-trawl boats operating in Area 1A could land herring throughout the week.

But still, landings remained low throughout August. Matt Cieri, a biologist at DMR, noted that landings by late August were significantly lower than in 2016. “We are about 3,000 metric tons less than last year,” he said. “We are on target to complete the quota by the end of September.”

A herring boat captain operating in Area 1A, who asked that his name not be used, expressed his frustration. “The fish are staying on the bottom in shoal water,” he said. “They are not coming up. So when your seine goes down to 40 fathom and they are at 60, well, you see. We are way behind on what the catch should be. I landed nothing last night.”

Tony Hooper, resource manager for Connor Brothers in New Brunswick, also was troubled by the behavior of herring in the Bay of Fundy. “We’re doing OK, there’s lots of fish around but they are staying deeper and not coming up at night as they normally do,” he said. Surveys of spawning areas by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) indicate that there are plenty of fish on the spawning grounds so it’s not a question of the herring population’s strength, Hooper said. “It’s not a resource problem, it’s a behavioral problem,” he said. “Even the weir fishermen are having a hard time. The darn things won’t come in.”

Landings from offshore (Area 3) are also extremely low again this summer, with less than 20% of the quota landed through August. The larger trawl vessels are finding the fish scarce. An industry representative reported that two Gloucester herring boats, Challenger and Endeavor, have fished on Georges Bank several times. After a late August trip they reported continuing to see lots of haddock while the herring were not schooling up. Herring captains think that a strong weather system in September bringing steady winds will help mix the water and cause the herring to school.

If supply of a prized object is tight, you can guess what happens to its price. Herring prices have remained around $155 to $180 a barrel throughout the summer, according to reports compiled by the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. In some areas, supply has grown so tight that wharves have limited the number of trays of bait lobstermen can buy. “The price is up because there are restrictions on flow,” Cieri said. “But there have been a lot of menhaden in the market this year.”

You can’t be a fisherman without having a fair amount of patience. The herring captain in Area 1A has been in the business forty years. “This happened before in 2012 and I think in 2007. You can’t make the fish do anything different. But it is frustrating and it is expensive,” he said.

Jennie Bichrest, president of Purseline Bait in Harpswell, says that for her business, the late summer has not been good. “It’s been spotty. It was good for a while. Now the fish just aren’t bunching up. They [herring captains] are seeing the fish but they’re not catching them.” She has a large amount of frozen herring stored in her facility because she limited the amount her customers could purchase earlier in the summer. Now those customers are using menhaden, leaving her with ten truckloads in the freezer.

Hooper thinks that the weather has something to do with the herring staying deep in the water. “It’s been calm and warm this summer. We need a strong wind to mix things up, stir up the food. The catch is going to turn on, but the question is when,” he said.