Potential slash of herring quota could lead lobstermen to sit out season

A proposal by the New England Fisheries Management Council on 25 September to make large changes to the herring fishery could lead to many Maine, U.S.A.-based lobstermen to sit out the next season. 

The NEFMC’s Amendment 8, which was in the works for years, will lead to multiple changes to the region’s herring fishery. Boats using midwater trawl gear will be banned from within 12 nautical miles, and a new control rule was created that takes into account the herring fishery’s impact on other fisheries in the region. 

Most importantly from the perspective of the lobstermen, however, was the drastic cut in quota that the new decisions represented. The quota has fallen from north of 100,000 tons to just under 50,000 tons, with the proposal potentially setting the future quota at just over 21,000 tons. 

That massive reduction was criticized at the hearing by Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. 

“There’s no one that has more at stake,” she said during the hearing. “The lobster industry will bear the brunt of all the decisions that are made here.”

The lobster industry was already seeing a bait shortage on the horizon. As early as July, the industry was anticipating a bait shortage, according to reports in the Portland Press Herald

“The price of herring for bait is already high,” Port Clyde, Maine lobsterman Gary Libby told the Press Herald in July 2018. “A lower quota will only create more hardship for lobster fishermen because the price of bait is the biggest expense, and with projected lower catch of lobster in the next few years we will need bait at a cost that will help fishermen maintain their businesses that helps the local economy.”

Those fears, if the herring quota cut ultimately becomes enforced, will likely prove true. 

Brooklin, Maine lobsterman David Tarr told the Press Herald that if the bait prices get too high, he’ll likely just sit out the season.

“At a certain point, it is just not worth it,” he said. “I won’t go fishing just to pay for my bait.”

Many lobstermen would consider sitting out the “shoulder seasons” – spring and fall, when the catch is lower – if the cost of bait gets too high. If bait costs get high enough, the odds of catching enough lobster to pay for the bait will make fishing a losing proposition. While larger organizations could absorb the cost, a lot of the state’s smaller fishermen will likely bear the brunt of the cost increase, according to Hugh Bowen, a lobsterman based in Freeport, Maine. 

“The big guys will pay what they have to for whatever else they can get, further gouging into the bottom line,” Bowen said to the Press Herald. “We are the bottom of the chain, work the hardest and are at the mercy of lobster and bait dealers. Along many parts of the coast, you can slave your life away and never truly become financially comfortable. … But if I wanted to be rich I would have high-tailed it to the city.”

At the hearing McCarron said she predicts lobstermen will seek other sources of bait where they can, whatever that bait might be. Regardless, millions of pounds of bait will be off the table come 2019. 

“We manage to cut half of our use, we’re still 40 million pounds of bait short,” she said. “We’re USD 45 to 50 [EUR  38.80 to 43.10] a bushel for bait. We anticipate that that will double next year.”


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