ELLSWORTH — This week, lobstermen and lobster buyers were complaining about a shortage of bait.
Around Mount Desert Island, fishermen were paying $135 for a 500-pound barrel (about five bushels) of salted herring, if they could get it. Seal Cove lobster buyer Donnie Crabtree said herring was in such short supply that lobstermen would be baiting their traps with seagulls by the end of the month.
Anyone with fresh (as opposed to frozen) herring to sell “could name his own price.”
The news was no better Downeast, at least early in the month.
In Jonesport, lobster dealer Bimbo Look said a bait shortage at the beginning of September “drove the price up” $6 a bushel. Around Moosabec Reach, Look said, fishermen were paying $16.50 for a 5-gallon bucket — the usual local measure — of herring during the week before Labor Day. It takes about three buckets to make up a bushel.
By this week, though, the price in Jonesport had dropped to $13.50 a bucket.
For fishermen dealing with the O’Hara Co. in Rockland, one of the state’s largest bait dealers, the situation has remained pretty much unchanged since the spring.
This week, O’Hara was selling a 400-pound barrel (four bushels) of fresh herring for $120, the same price as it was selling for in May.
Why the price fluctuations, and the angst?
Last year, according to the Department of Marine Resources, Maine lobstermen landed more than 123 million pounds of lobsters. The vast majority of those lobsters were caught in traps baited with fresh herring, although fishermen use other bait — fresh or frozen — when herring is scarce.
A look at the numbers makes scarcity of herring hard to fathom.
According to DMR scientist Rob Watts, Maine dealers reported buying 104,241,605 pounds of Atlantic herring last year — about half the total catch in the Northeast — with those landings valued at more than $16.3 million last year. The top five ports for landings in terms of pounds were Portland, Rockland, Stonington, Prospect Harbor and Jonesport.
Historically, about 70 percent of those fish are used for lobster bait in Maine. The rest may end up as canned fish or it may be smoked, pickled or salted.
Despite that vast quantity of fish, the amount of bait used by the Maine lobster industry boggles the mind.
According to Look, on the larger offshore lobster boats that fish out of Jonesport “some guys are using 25 to 30 cans (about 800 to 1,000 pounds) a day” of bait. And that’s just one harbor.
Although demand for “fresh” herring — the fish used for bait are actually salted down for preservation — is enormous, the real problem lies on the supply side. And the supply of herring is highly regulated.
Herring, like bluefish and striped bass, among other species, range widely through the coastal waters of many Atlantic Seaboard states as well as far offshore. The fishery is managed jointly by coordinated plans from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (primarily for inshore waters) and the New England Fishery Management Council.
These groups set annual quotas, called Annual Catch Limits for five distinct management areas off the coast. The annual limits for these areas are set to allow for a sustainable harvest while leaving enough herring for fish, birds and marine mammals. The quotas are further subdivided into four-month, trimester allotments.
If landings approach that amount before the trimester ends, the fishery can be closed.
That, combined with an absence of fish, is what happened in early September.
Much of the herring used for bait during the late summer comes from a stretch of near-coastal waters known as Area 1A, which has an annual catch limit of 68.8 million pounds. Of that amount, 72.8 percent is allocated to the June-September period. Boats have to take “days out” from the fishery to help manage the four-month quota.
Regulators determined that the quota for the trimester that ends Sept. 30 would likely be caught by the end of August, so they closed the fishery in that area one month early. Fishing continued farther offshore, but that didn’t help.
“Our boats were fishing on Georges (Bank),” said Wyatt Anderson. He runs the bait operation at O’Hara.
“Fish were scarce for about a week,” he said, but “the offshore boats have started catching some.”
Anderson said the herring shortage was worse for some fishermen than others. It all depended on where they bought their bait.
“There are a lot of shysters in this business,” he said.
Look agreed that increased landings from the offshore boats had eased the bait situation, but added that the temporary shortage had driven up the price for dealers and fishermen alike.
“The last two weeks have been expensive for everyone,” Look said. “The Canadians made out like a bandit, selling high-price fish.”
Most commercially caught herring are landed either by mid-water trawlers — which drag huge nets through the water scooping up schools of fish — or by purse seiners that encircle a school of fish with a single net that is then closed off at the bottom like a purse. Only purse seiners are allowed to fish in federal waters (3 to 200 miles from shore) between June 1 and Sept. 30.
Look blamed the regulatory scheme for much of the herring shortage. Until the fishery was shut down at the end of August, there were no days out for the purse seiners, so they “fished 24-7 and fished up the quota,” Look said.
Last year, Maine lobster landings totaled 123,676,100 pounds worth nearly $457 million. It was the third year in a row that Maine lobstermen landed more than 120 million pounds.
Look credited at least some of that bounty to the way DMR manages the lobster fishery.
“Lobsters,” he said. “Somebody’s doing something right. Herring’s an entirely different story.”