Maine lobster industry facing bait, potential regulation issues in 2019

On the heels of the Maine Department of Marine Resource’s announcement that the lobster industry topped USD 484 million (EUR 426 million) in value in 2018, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association was discussing the multiple outside factors that could make 2019 a difficult year for fishermen. 

At the MLA’s annual meeting in Rockport, Maine, on Friday, 1 March, two issues loomed large for fishermen: Potential regulations related to the endangered North Atlantic right whale, and the drastic cuts to herring quotas that will heavily impact the industry’s bait supply. Both issues have the potential to make life difficult for lobstermen as regulations that are coming could reduce the amount of traps or the types of gear they can use, and the reduction in bait supplies could leave fishermen struggling to fill traps with increasingly expensive bait. 

“We now know that our 2019 quota is going to be 15,000 metric tons (MT),” Patrice McCarron, executive director of the MLA, said during the meeting. “It translates to almost 77 million pounds of herring that won’t come into the fishery.”

Substantial declines in recruitment and biomass in the latest surveys resulted in the New England Fisheries Management Council to slash the herring quotas from nearly 50,000 MT to just over 15,000 M, a 70 percent reduction in the supply of herring. That’s compounded by previous decreases, leaving the lobster industry with a much lower supply of bait. 

Compounding the issue, that bait typically came in during some of the busiest parts of the fishing season, and was sourced locally, eliminating the need for any cold-storage of freezing infrastructure for the bait.

“We’re going to lose 70 percent of our primary bait source, which we know it was locally landed, and we know it came in during peak demand,” McCarron said.

That decrease in supply, with strong demand, is likely to lead to increased prices for lobstermen.

“We can certainly assume that bait prices will go up, and we can assume bait will be scarce,” McCarron said. “Guys who just aren’t tied in to the big bait dealers, you’re really going to have to be prepared to scrap.”

The partial federal government shutdown in January also had an impact on the bait shortage. The MLA and other organization were advocating for a smaller reduction in the herring quota, but due to the shutdown, staff weren’t on hand to investigate whether it was possible. 

“Due to the government shutdown, they weren’t able to look at an in-between option. They just had nobody on staff,” McCarron said. 

Alternative sources of bait, as well, are difficult to find. Maine has benefitted from a slightly increased menhaden (known locally as pogies) quota, but even if fishermen catch every bit of quota available to them, menhaden will barely make up the massive gap in bait supply. 

“Yes it’s amazing to have the pogies come in locally to get into the bait market, but it’s tiny,” McCarron said. “That is the best-case scenario. Our commissioner worked his tail off to get fish transferred from other states.”

Other sources of bait being proposed include invasive carp species from Illinois. However, Maine regulations require that any bait used in the area’s waters have an identified, disease-free source. 

“There has been carp sold in Maine,” Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine DMR. “That bait dealer has done the paperwork and shown DMR where the carp is originating from, and shown chain the of custody.”

However, any other dealer looking to do the same would have to do the same legwork, and the supply chain may not be enough to supply the estimated 50 million pounds of alternative bait sources that the MLA estimates the industry will need.

Another issue at the forefront of the industry’s worries is the ongoing pressure from regulators regarding the endangered North Atlantic right whale. 

“We fought and are continuing to fight every day to set the record straight on what Maine’s actual role is with entangled right whales,” Kristan Porter, president of the MLA, said. 

The DMR has been engage in experimenting with rope strength to determine what rope strengths fishermen use, in order to inform any discussions on changing rope breaking strength in order to protect right whales. 

Multiple cases of whale deaths have been attributed to entanglement with fishing gear, which has led to NOAA Fisheries investigating what regulations could be necessary to prevent further deaths. 

Multiple NGOs already engaged in a lawsuit against the federal government in May 2018, claiming that not enough has been done to protect the endangered species. 

“The allegations could lead to a requirement that the government take steps that could end in regulations or an actual closing of the fishery,” said Mary Anne Mason, who also works with the MLA. 

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Council has already decided to push forward new regulations after a review from a working group the council established.

The council, according to Teri Kerns of ASMFC, wanted to created measures to protect endangered species to meet their obligations that didn’t also jeopardize the economic viability of the fishery. 

Currently, the ASMFC’s lobster board is considering a reduction of vertical lines in the water. 

“We’ll be putting together a document that will propose reductions in vertical lines by up of 40 percent,” Kerns said. 

In addition, the ASMFC is looking to develop a reporting method for all vertical lines to get a better picture of the vertical lines that are being used. 

According to Kerns, the board has already created a plan development team, made up of individuals from the relevant states and regulatory bodies.

“These folks have knowledge of trap data, how the fishery operates, state and federal regulations, and how whales interact with the fishing gear,” she said. 

The development team is drafting an addendum to implement the potential regulations, which is scheduled to have a proposal in May. The optimum schedule has a full plan being approved in August, with an implementation date to still be decided. 

Regardless of the route the various management councils and administrations take, the industry will be facing additional regulations to protect right whales, according to Erin Summers of the Maine DMR. 

For lobstermen, that just adds to potential uncertainty that already exists in the industry for 2019, Porter said. 

“Even if you take the whales out, and take the bait issues out, fishing is still fishing,” he said. “You just don’t know what to expect.”


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