Maine’s lobster industry is scrambling to prepare for the pending shortage in herring bait facing Maine lobstermen this season. The final herring quota announced by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for 2019 is 15,065 metric tons, a 70% reduction from the 2018 quota of 49,900 metric tons. Approximately 77 million pounds of herring will not be available to lobstermen this year.
What will they do? What will the bait dealers do to make up that absent number of pounds?
In fact, lobstermen have been adjusting to a shrinking supply of herring for some years now. Until 2006, lobstermen had access to more than 100,000 metric tons of herring. Herring landings dropped to a previous low of just over 60,000 metric tons in 2010, but rebounded to more than 90,000 metric tons until 2014. Since then, landings of herring have dropped steadily, to 44,000 metric tons in 2018.
We asked several lobstermen from different areas of the coast about what they use for bait and their thoughts about the coming fishing season.
Chris Welch, 30, lobsters from Kennebunk aboard F/V Foolish Pride. His primary type of bait is herring and pogies when they are available. “In the late fall I will switch to hard bait — skate, redfish. This year I will try whatever I can get,” Welch said. Currently he estimates that 20% to 25% of his business costs go to purchase bait. “Ten years ago it was totally different. I maybe spent 10% on bait,” he said. Welch purchases bait from New England Fish Company or Coastal Bait Company in Portland. When it comes to storing bait, Welch takes part in a local cooler association where he can stockpile a few weeks’ worth of bait. “It is something built years ago, I own a portion of the building,” he explained. This year he plans to use less bait than in the past. “I will haul on shorter soaks and fish fewer traps until the bulk of the lobsters show up,” Welch said.
Bob Baines, who lobsters in South Thomaston, still fishes primarily with herring. “I’ve used herring for thirty some years. I used pogies when they were available last year and I use alewives in the spring,” he said. He estimates that approximately 15% of his gross goes to buy bait. “That’s more than double what is was ten years ago,” Baines said. Furthermore, as the lobster population has become stronger in Downeast waters, Baines continues to fish as he did ten years ago but is landing fewer lobsters, making his bait costs even more significant. He is a member of the Spruce Head Fishermen’s Co-operative which gets its bait from the O’Hara Corporation in Rockland.
Baines has adjusted his fishing to conserve bait as much as he can. He’s used bait saver bags at different times of the year and cut back on the amount of bait in each bag. But, in terms of this season, “I just hope for the best,” he said.
Mike Sargent, 26, of Stueben, fishes with herring or pogies at different times of the year, supplemented with hides. “In the summer I use herring for the first month or two depending when the pogies come in. I’ll supplement with the pogies generally in mid-August until the fall,” he said. The herring that Sargent, like many Downeast lobstermen, use is imported from Canada. The Canadian herring is available in the fall, when the fish arrive off the coasts of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. During the winter months Sargent has used hard bait, such as haddock racks, but he says he won’t use it again. “Last year it didn’t work so I stayed with hide and herring. Winter means hard bait, like redfish, skate if you can get it. It’s a lot harder here to get that bait because the cutting houses are so far away,” Sargent explained.
Sargent estimates that between 20% to 25% of his gross revenue goes to buy bait right now. Compared to five or ten years ago, “bait costs are up significantly. It’s a huge difference,” he said. He purchases herring from J & K Lobster Bait and D.C. Air in Gouldsboro. To store the bait he gets, Sargent takes an old-fashioned approach. “I do it like they used to do. I have insulated vats and I salt the pogies, flip them over and salt them again. There’s 20 bushels to a vat,” he said.
To make do in recent years, Sargent has paid closer attention to how much bait he uses. “Now we don’t dump the bait, we repack it. I’ve moved to small mesh bags from larger mesh. And I supplement with hide throughout the year,” he said. This season he pre-bought herring and salted it to use until the pogies come in. “I’m pretty good on bait right now. The unknown is what we are going to have to pay in the future. Guys who depend on herring are going to have a hard time and hard bait is going to be scarce as well.”