DEER ISLE — For the fishing industry, nothing is as constant as change.
Last year, according to the Department of Marine Resources, lobster was Maine’s most valuable fishery with landings of 110,819,760 pounds — the sixth highest ever — worth some $450,799,283.
Despite all the talk about high-value species such as scallops and elvers, according to DMR herring were the state’s second most valuable commercial fishery in 2017.
Herring boats like the Sunlight and the Starlight owned by the O’Hara Corp. in Rockland or the Portland-based trawler Providian landed some 66,453,073 pounds of herring worth about $17.9 million at a record price of 27 cents per pound.
Most of those landings went to the dealers who supply herring, the primary source of bait for the lobster industry, to fishermen up and down the coast. And most of those herring came from what is known as “Area 1-A,” the inshore waters of the Gulf of Maine.
All that is going to change.
The herring population is an important source of food for whales, tuna and seabirds, among other species. And the herring population is in trouble, according to data consulted by regulators at the New England Fisheries Management Council. So the council recently recommended drastic steps to reduce the amount of herring that fishermen will be allowed to catch.
If approved by NOAA Fisheries, the 2019 landings quota for herring would be set at just 14,558 metric tons (about 32 million pounds). That cut comes on top of an already sharp reduction imposed this past summer.
In the middle of the year, the quota was cut by more than half, from 110,000 metric tons (242.5 million pounds) to about 50,000 metric tons (some 110.2 million pounds).
Maine lobstermen were already worried about what last summer’s cut would do to bait availability. Last week’s decision suggests that herring will be in extremely short supply and that what is available will be extremely expensive.
In 2013, Maine Lobstermen’s Association Executive Director Patrice McCarron said, fishermen were paying $30 a bushel for bait. Last summer, a bushel cost about $45 on the coast, $60 on the islands.
On the O’Hara Lobster Bait website this week, the price of herring was quoted at $175 for a 400-pound barrel (44 cents per pound) or $690 for an 1,800-pound tank (about 38 cents per pound).
Whatever the cost, lobstermen use a lot of bait — thousands of pounds in a year.
One Searsport lobsterman said recently that it takes about five bushels of herring to fill 300 bait bags to use in his traps. Another fisherman from Stonington said she gets about 180 bags from just under five bushels.
With most lobstermen fishing 800 traps during much of the year, the quantity of bait required for a successful operation is staggering.
At the beginning of the month, Brooklin lobsterman David Tarr confirmed a report in the Portland Press Herald that he spends as much as $600 to $800 a day to bait his traps with herring or the less favored pogies (menhaden) or redfish.
Next season, that price will be going up.