ELLSWORTH — For such a small fish, herring play a critical role in the ecosystem of the Gulf of Maine. Only a few inches long, the plankton-eating fish are an important prey species, providing food for top marine predators, and are an important source of bait for Maine’s $547 million lobster industry.
In the Gulf of Maine, besides feeding whales, seals, harbor porpoises and dolphins, herring, particularly juvenile herring, provide a principal source of food for sea birds such as Atlantic puffins, razorbills, common terns and Arctic terns. Much of their catch is fed to young birds still in the nest.
In the water itself, top predators such as bluefin tuna, bluefish and striped bass, as well as cod, hake, pollock, dogfish and many species of shark, feed on herring.
Man is another top predator that relies on herring. In 2016, fishermen landed more than 77 million pounds of herring in Maine, most of it to be used as lobster bait, and most of it caught by trawlers fishing far offshore. That number is down from 103.5 million pounds just three years ago.
Not surprisingly, the price of lobster bait has climbed significantly. According to the Department of Marine Resources, the price of herring increased 57 percent between 2014 and 2016, and lobstermen saw the price of herring increase by a third or more, according to Maine Lobstermen’s Association President David Cousens.
Earlier this month, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to change the rules that regulate herring fishing in the Gulf of Maine. Just how the rules will change, though, is unclear.
The council sent a draft of a new amendment to the herring management plan out for public hearings without indicating which of several competing rule changes might be “preferred.” Those decisions will come after a series of hearings to be held next year throughout the Northeast and New England.
The proposed changes to the plan cover two main issues.
First, 10 options, including an option to stand pat, relate to establishing a long-term acceptable biological catch (ABC) for the fishery. The ABC is used to help set annual catch limits.
Under the proposals, the ABC “may explicitly account for herring’s role in the ecosystem and address the biological and ecological requirements of the stock.”
The second key element is how to deal with local issues, such as conflicts among fisheries and depletion of the herring stock in a particular locale.
The Gulf of Maine is more or less divided into three herring management areas: Area 1A, the nearshore fishery; Area 1B, farther offshore from the southeast tip of Cape Cod northeastward to the Canadian border; and Area 3, far offshore. The nine new options proposed by the council include both spatial and seasonal options relating to what type of gear may be used to fish for herring, if any.
One major concern is fishing by midwater trawlers — sometimes operating in pairs — which drag huge nets through the water scooping up herring and, in some instances, tearing up fixed fishing gear such as lobster and crab traps. The use of midwater trawlers is especially contentious in inshore waters, where the lobster fishery is the most intensive.
One proposal would ban midwater trawl gear from the inshore Gulf of Maine year-round. Other proposals would impose seasonal or geographic limits.
No decision on which new rules will be adopted is expected for months. In announcing the plan, though, the council said it anticipated that the proposals would generate “a large degree of public engagement during the hearings,” which will begin after the first of the year.