ELLSWORTH — The new year will soon be here, and with it comes a new round of significant changes to the rules governing the herring fishery.
Next week, the Department of Marine Resources will hold a public hearing on what is known as “Draft Amendment 3 to the Interstate Management Plan for Atlantic Herring.”
Hearings are also scheduled in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
The new rules proposed by the interstate Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will bring big changes to the fishery that is the primary supplier of bait to Maine’s lobster industry. In 2014, the last year for which DMR has data, still preliminary figures show that fishermen landed just over 104 million pounds of herring, worth some $16.3 million, in Maine. Scientists from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute have determined that about 70 percent of that herring (some 70 million pounds) is used by Maine lobstermen as bait.
According to the ASMFC, the new rules would affect the inshore Gulf of Maine — called Area 1A — herring fishery to reflect changes in both the herring resource and the fishery itself. The key changes deal with the closure of the fishery during spawning season and would impose a requirement that herring boats completely empty their fish holds before starting each fishing trip.
Regulators generally consider the herring stock to be abundant, especially compared with just a few years ago when overfishing had seriously depleted the fish population.
The herring stock in Area 1A now includes more fish that are larger and older compared with the time when overfishing was a problem. The evidence suggests that the larger fish spawn earlier than smaller herring, and that the start of the spawning season varies from year to year.
While Atlantic herring reproduce in the same general season each year, the onset, peak and duration of spawning may vary by several weeks annually because of changing oceanographic conditions such as sea temperature and the abundance of the plankton on which the fish feed.
Under the rules now in force, areas along the coast of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine are periodically closed to fishing at certain times of year — primarily during the late summer and early fall — when large schools of spawning herring are believed to be present.
Now, the fishing closures usually begin in eastern Maine sometime in August and move westward, ending sometime in October. The proposed changes in the rules are aimed at providing more protection to the spawning fish and ensuring that the closed periods more accurately mirror the times when the vast schools of spawning herring are actually in the closure areas.
The proposed rules also include another change suggested by members of the herring industry — a requirement for fish holds to be empty at the beginning of each fishing trip.
According to the ASMFC, the rule “would allow for full accountability and encourage less wasteful fishing practices.” The New England Fishery Management Council included a similar provision in its management plan covering the offshore herring fishery.
The problem, the ASMFC said in an explanation of the proposed rule, is that boats sometimes land more herring than they can sell, so they dump the unsold catch when they return to sea. The proposed rule would, regulators say, give fishermen more incentive to tailor their efforts to catch just enough herring to meet the needs of the market.
The rule, if implemented, would also allow for better monitoring of landings and more accurate collection of scientific data about the size and composition of the catch.
This is considered particularly important for monitoring unwanted bycatch — the harvest of species other than Atlantic herring, particularly river herring that spawn in streams and rivers, which many scientists and conservation groups consider to be at risk.
The DMR has scheduled a hearing on the ASMFC proposals for 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 6, in Conference Room 118 of the Marquardt Building, 32 Blossom Lane, Augusta. For information, contact Terry Stockwell at 624-6553.