ROCKPORT — News about the Atlantic herring fishery has a rapt audience, even though not too many commercial boats in eastern Maine are in that business, because herring is by far the preferred bait for lobster fishermen.
How much herring fishermen are allowed to land, an annual Total Allowable Catch, is set by the New England Fishery Management Council (NEMFC). In 2018, that number was dramatically cut. And that meant more expensive lobster bait.
At the Fishermen’s Forum last month, representatives of the NEMFC discussed how the council monitors the herring population, especially where and when the fish are spawning, and what other changes are being considered.
The quota is determined by stock assessments, including measures of the spawning stock, Deirdre Boelke, herring plan coordinator for the council, explained. If the spawning stock biomass dips too far, the species moves into an “overfished” category and no commercial landings at all would be allowed.
A major “benchmark” assessment was completed in 2018 and a more limited “management track” assessment is planned for this year.
Boelke said she wanted to “temper expectations” that the new data could bring way more quota: “Adding two years of data is great, but in a 40-year time series you can’t expect miracles, either,” she said.
Fisheries regulators are constantly working on how to improve harvester and dealer reporting, in order to make management decisions with the best information in hand. Some fishermen at the meeting reported having seen more small herring last summer and fall than in previous years.
“We’re willing to work in any way we can with the scientists,” said Chris Weiner of Portland, who said he works with several of the herring boats. “The assessment for a long time was trying to paint a far too optimistic picture. Now I think it’s gone too far the other way.”
There are three gear types in the herring fishery: midwater trawls, purse seiners and otter trawls, which drag along the bottom. Under a proposed amendment to the herring management plan, midwater trawling would be prohibited in the first twelve miles from shore between the Canadian border to the Rhode Island-Connecticut border. That restriction is on top of an existing ban on midwater trawling in an area designated 1A between June 1 and Sept. 30.