TREMONT — “We made no money this spring,” said Bass Harbor fisherman Justin Sprague.
The cost of operations for lobstering continues to increase while the boat price of lobster has hardly budged. The cost of herring, the preferred bait for most Maine lobsterman, has gone up especially sharply.
“We don’t have any margin at this point,” Sprague said. “It’s frustrating, to say the least.”
Bruce Colbeth manages the C.H. Rich lobster wharf in Bass Harbor.
“By the time these guys pay for fuel, bait and stern men, there ain’t too much left for them,” he said. “I remember six years ago you could sell (herring) bait for $26 a bushel. Now it’s doubled.”
Herring bait is sold in trays. Fisherman Chris Goodwin said he paid almost $80 per tray for herring bait the last time he stocked up.
A ton of bait can be divided into about 13 trays, Cody Gatcomb of C.H. Rich explained. A tray of fish bait is equivalent to 1.5 bushels, Colbeth said. He saw a recent 3-cent per pound increase at his operation.
That adds up fast.
At the moment, not considered prime season, C.H. Rich Co. is selling between 350 and 400 trays of herring bait a week, Colbeth said. Once the season begins in July, they can expect to sell up to 800 trays of bait each week.
Some fishermen have reserved barrels of herring bait for the upcoming season in preparation for a possible shortage, Gatcomb said.
One possible reason for the price increase is a decline in the number of herring being caught, according to Patrice McCarron, director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
Rules for the herring fishery in state waters are coordinated by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and implemented by the states. In federal waters, the New England Fisheries Management Council develops regulations and the National Marine Fisheries Service reviews, approves and implements them.
In the last four years, landings have decreased 50 percent, McCarron said. The whole Gulf of Maine Atlantic herring fishery has a catch limit of 100,000 metric tons.
“The quotas this year haven’t been cut any from last,” said Colbeth.
In the inshore Area 1A of the Maine coast, the fleet has been catching most of its quota, which is about 30,000 metric tons. But in the other areas further south and further offshore, the herring fleet hasn’t been getting anywhere close to the quota.
The total quota for all four herring management areas in Gulf of Maine is about 100,000 tons. In 2013, total landings were 97,680 tons. Last year, the catch was recorded at 49,513 tons.
Further limitations have been imposed on the herring fishery by state and interstate regulators, aiming to prevent depletion of the Atlantic herring population. The changes dictate the days vessels may land their catch and impose daily and weekly limits on landings.
There’s also the issue of bycatch, which is when a fishing vessel accidentally catches species other than the one it’s going for, such as haddock. That complicates operations for the herring fishermen.
“The herring fleet has a limited amount of bycatch it can land,” McCarron said.
All that notwithstanding, many lobstermen and lobster dealers suspect that high herring prices may be less about lower supply and more about continued high demand.
“Herring fishermen have lobstermen over a barrel,” said Brenden Moses who manages the bait at Thurston’s Wharf in Bass Harbor.
Colbeth said herring dealers may be pricing themselves out of the market.
“A lot more people are switching over to hard bait,” said Gatcomb, pointing to tubs of redfish within the bait house at C.H. Rich Co.
Hard bait is one alternative to herring bait and is typically made up of redfish, rockfish and pogie (menhaden), according to fisherman Travis Lunt. He decided to switch to hard bait two years ago when herring bait became more difficult to source at an affordable price.
“Everybody’s different. I don’t use a lot but a lot of guys are going through seven to eight fish trays a day,” said Lunt.
Lunt, along with many other fishermen, is crossing his fingers for a strong fishing season. Last year fell short of expectations, he said.
“Right now we’re just overturning money, waiting.”
More will be clear once the shedder lobsters start appearing, which is expected in about a month.
“The whole business is frustrating right now,” said Sprague. “Tensions are high. It’s going to be a rough season.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the roles of the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) and Atlantic Sates Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). Rules for the herring fishery in state waters are coordinated by the ASMFC and implemented by the states. In federal waters, the NEMFC develops regulations and the National Marine Fisheries Service reviews, approves and implements them. The Islander apologizes for the error.