PLYMOUTH, Mass. — With bait prices on the rise and the bait in short supply, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEMFC) met in Plymouth, Mass., on Tuesday to take final action on an amendment to the Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic herring.
It’s a step that some lobstermen fear will prevent them from getting the bait they need to fish next season and that some environmental groups fear won’t do enough to restore what they say are falling herring stocks.
Bait prices are already high. Early this week, the O’Hara Lobster Bait Co. of Rockland was advertising fresh herring for sale at just under 44 cents per pound in 400-pound barrels and about 38 cents per pound in 1,800-pound tank loads.
The NEFMC manages the herring fishery in the area between 3 and 200 miles off the coast.
Last year, federal fisheries regulators from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) established an allowable catch limit for Atlantic herring in 2018 of about 240 million pounds in Northeast waters, but the NEFMC recommended that the quota be reduced to about 118 million pounds.
That was bad news for fishermen, but worse was to come. Late last month, NOAA announced that it was cutting that number to less than 110 million pounds, a reduction of some 55 percent. The principal basis for the reduction was the very low number of young fish among the herring population.
At the time, Carrie Nordeen, a fisheries policy analyst at NOAA Fisheries, said, “We did this action because we completed an assessment of the herring stock in June and it showed that lower catch limits would be needed in the next few years to reduce the chance of overfishing.”
In mid-September, representatives from Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts met on a conference call to adopt measures to control the herring fishing effort in a discrete area — the inshore Gulf of Maine (designated Area 1A by fisheries regulators) for the last four months of the year. Basically, fishing or landing of herring will be allowed just five days each week.
For the first week of October, vessels from those three states may possess and land herring from the inshore gulf from Monday through Friday, Oct. 5.
Starting Oct. 7, Maine boats may land herring between Sunday evening and Friday evening. Starting Oct. 8, vessels in the New Hampshire and Massachusetts may land herring between 12:01 a.m. on Monday and 11:59 p.m. Friday.
Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts regulators are scheduled to review the situation again by conference call on Oct. 12.
Even with those control measures in place, regulators will still closely monitor the fishery during the last four months of the year and will close Area 1A if landings are projected to reach 92 percent of the regulatory catch limit for the area. In any event, fishermen are currently prohibited from landing more than 2,000 pounds of Atlantic herring per trip from Area 1A until Oct. 1.
The proposal under consideration at the fishery management council this week, known as “Amendment 8,” is designed, in part, to establish a new way to set what is known as an “acceptable biological catch” for herring on which landings quotas are based. One key issue is whether the measures under consideration risks closing the herring fishery for as long as three years while the stock recovers to a sustainable level.
The proposals currently under consideration have drawn strong criticism from environmental groups such as The Pew Charitable Trusts.
While much of the focus on herring is aimed at its role as lobster bait, herring are also a crucial food source for a variety of other species ranging from gulls and puffins to game fish such as striped bass, and marine mammals such as whales.
According to Peter Baker, Pew’s director for oceans in the Northeast, the organization supports a prohibition of fishing by large midwater trawlers, which can land millions of pounds of herring at a time within 50 miles of shore. The ban “would be largely consistent with rules in place along the Maine coast for nine months of the year,” Baker wrote. “The midwater trawl fleet could fish farther offshore, where these large vessels already capture a significant portion of their annual catch.”