Bait Dealers Nervous About Herring Cuts

O’Hara Corporation vessel Western Sea at the dock in Rockland. Photo courtesy of Village Soup.

What do you do if your business sells bait to lobstermen and suddenly your highest volume product — fresh herring — is in short supply? You adapt.
In recent years Maine bait dealers have faced sharp declines in the volume of herring landed due to a combination of reduced quotas and under-harvesting of the offshore quota, putting a kink in how they managed their businesses. In 2019 they will encounter the most significant drop in herring supply to date.
Based on the Northeast Science Center’s final herring stock assessment, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) next year will limit the landing of Atlantic herring to no more than 28,900 metric tons, a reduction of 57.5 million pounds. The 2019 figure is a significant drop from the 2018 quota which was reduced to 49,900 metric tons and a league away from the 105,000 metric ton quota originally allocated for 2016-2018.
In addition to the cuts based on the stock assessment, the amount of available herring could be further reduced depending on which Amendment 8 alternative to the Council’s herring management plan is approved this month.
Maine bait dealers have faced reductions in the quota for herring before, though none so severe as this. As Wyatt Anderson, bait manager for O’Hara Corporation in Rockland said about previous quota decreases, “We acquired it from wherever we could get it. We didn’t get much from Canada because it’s too expensive. But we have relationships that came through.”
When the amount of herring available dropped by 30% after 2008, Maine lobstermen began to shift from fresh herring to menhaden, known as pogies. When further reductions took place, dealers began to supply lobstermen with frozen bait composed of species from around the world including redfish, tuna heads, rockfish, alfonsino racks, and more. O’Hara built a frozen bait storage facility in Rockland; other dealers followed suit.
Being nimble and having tried and true connections with suppliers around the country and the globe helped Maine bait dealers in the past. But the huge deficit anticipated in 2019 has even the largest companies concerned. “We have two boats active in the herring fishery now,” explained Wayne Reichle at Lund’s in New Jersey. “Menhaden has been strong the past couple of years and there are substitute products, but yes, I am worried.”
The problem is the magnitude of the poundage to be made up. Regardless of a lobsterman’s preferred bait, the shortfall in herring supply will spike demand for all available baits creating shortages and price increases. O’Hara has frozen inventory in place, Anderson explained, and additional facilities to store frozen bait on the West Coast. But neither O’Hara nor the other prominent bait companies in the state have enough storage space to make a dent in the anticipated shortfall. “There’s nothing out there to replace a 40 to 50-million-pound shortage,” Anderson said. “And believe me, all your frozen bait suppliers are aware of that. Price will reflect supply and demand. We’ve never seen a situation like this before.”
As one midcoast bait dealer who asked not to be identified said emphatically, “I am sure the lobstermen will survive. They are not the only ones in crisis.”