BAR HARBOR—For decades, lobstermen have filled their bait bags with Atlantic herring, the small fish that plays a tremendous role in the food chain and is the preferred bait of Maine’s biggest fishery.
“We’ve trained and raised our lobsters on it,” said James Hanscom, a Bar Harbor-based lobstermen who also sells bait. “It’s definitely the bait of choice.”
But as quotas for Atlantic herring have tightened over the years, lobstermen and bait dealers have been forced to look elsewhere for other baits to lure in lobsters.
Over the course of the last few years, the quotas on herring have been cut by 88 percent and the quota will drop again next year as the herring stock has been deemed overfished.
“The demand is high, but the supply just isn’t there,” said Brittany Willis, a partner and general manager of JBR Maine, a wholesale bait and lobster company with locations in Gouldsboro and Winter Harbor.
The problem is, while it’s considered overfished, overfishing of Atlantic herring isn’t currently occurring, leaving officials scratching their heads on what’s preventing the species from thriving.
For the past seven or eight years, there’s been little to no “recruitment,” or new baby herring, in the fishery, said Emily Gilbert, who supervises the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s herring team.
Without young herring being added to the mix, the stock hasn’t been able to recover.
Herring are found on the Atlantic coast from Canada to Virginia. Catch in the U.S. peaked in 1986 around 1.05 billion pounds. By the 2000s, landings held stable at about 250 million pounds but since dropped to 39 million pounds in 2019.
The 2021 annual catch limit is 10.6 million pounds and that quota is cut up between the different regions, with inshore Maine getting about three million of those pounds.
“It’s been a struggle to find herring,” said Ben Durkee, who runs Bring It Inc, a bait dealer in Jonesport. “You just have to branch out to find other types of bait.”
With reliable sources, Durkee has been able to keep herring in his catalogue, but fishermen have started to try other types of fish, such as menhaden (often called pogies), redfish, as well as frozen bait and even pig hide.
“We’ve turned to other baits,” said Chris Moore, a lobsterman out of Northeast Harbor. “A lot of the baits we’ve turned to is byproducts of other fisheries.”
He saw the latter part as a positive – using the leftover parts of pogies to catch lobster.
At first lobsters didn’t really seem to take to pogies, but they’ve now caught on.
“They’ve become a bait that’s worked for us,” he said. “It’s tough. We were really used to herring, but I think we’ve adapted.”
JBR Maine has been urging fishermen to use other baits as a supplement to herring and keep the herring for peak season. Even just a few years ago, it was a struggle to convince fishermen to buy pogies, but now the fishery relies heavily on the fish and the prices have shifted along with it.
“Pogies were always more expensive than herring,” said Rick Whitten, a partner and operations manager at JBR. “Now it’s flip flopped.”
Willis said she’s always looking for new kinds of bait and brought in catfish heads from Alabama this season. There are concerns that eventually pogies will shift, leaving fishermen looking for what’s next.
Maine’s inshore herring fishery is set to open in June and the New England Fishery Management Council is working on a plan to build the species back up. To try and take some pressure off the fishery, midwater trawls within 12 nautical miles of shore from Canada to Connecticut have been banned, but generally the herring fishery has been managed by the annual catch limits.
But if things don’t change, the quotas will be revisited.
“Until the recruitment gets better and we can get out of being overfished, we’ll be looking at tighter quotas moving forward,” Gilbert said.