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Are you ready for the 2019 bait crisis?

Imagine that a barrel of herring bait costs $500. Your bait is rationed to only a few trays per day. Several days each week there is no bait at all. On days when you can get bait, it is not your bait of choice.

It hardly seems possible, yet this is exactly what fishery managers are anticipating lobstermen will face next year when nearly 60 million pounds of fish are removed from the bait supply. Federal fisheries managers are awaiting the scientific peer review of the Atlantic herring stock assessment to confirm the finding that the herring stock is at an all-time low. The low stock figure is due to fewer young fish entering the population each year since 2013. The population now has more 6-year-old herring than first- and second-year herring combined. Though the report concludes that this is not a result of overfishing, the commercial herring fishery will face a massive cut in the overall quota in 2019 in order to help the stock rebound. In preparation for the 2019 quota reductions, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to cap 2018 herring landings at 55,000 metric tons, which is what the herring fishery landed in 2017. Based on the findings of the draft stock assessment, the overall 2019 quota will not exceed 28,900 metric tons. This is a reduction of 26,100 metric tons (57.5 million pounds) or a 47% reduction compared to 2017 and 2018 landings. According to Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, a similar decline in herring landings occurred from 2013 to 2017, during which time herring landings decreased by nearly 50% and bait prices jumped as much as 75% in many harbors along the coast. Now herring landings will be ratcheted down by another 47%. “The MLA is worried about what this is going to mean for lobstermen and our industry as a whole. Taking 57.5 million pounds of bait out of the bait supply all at once will mean that too many lobstermen will not have the bait to fish and others will struggle to remain profitable given the anticipated price increases,” she said. O’Hara Bait Company manager Wyatt Anderson predicts that a barrel of bait will cost $500 next year. O’Hara is one of Maine’s largest bait suppliers with capacity to store four million pounds of frozen product “O’Hara has been working to identify alternate sources of frozen bait to make up for next year’s losses but it will not be enough to meet the shortfall,” Anderson said. According to McCarron, the number one priority is getting the word out to the lobster industry so that lobstermen, lobster buyers and bait suppliers will have time to plan. “The MLA Board is worried that many in the industry do not know about the pending bait crisis. The industry needs time to prepare, to figure out how to use less bait and to identify alternate supplies,” explained McCarron. Many wharfs and lobster cooperatives along the coast have aquired bait freezers in recent years in order to keep their bait fresh during the increasingly hot summer months. But those freezers might be empty when 2019 rolls around. “Having a freezer will not guarantee a bait supply for next year since there is only a limited supply of frozen bait available, which might be able to be increased somewhat, but not near enough to make up the much lower herring quota for next year,” said Bob Baines, president of the Spruce Head Fishermen’s Co-op, which does not have a bait freezer. “If we built a cooler or freezer, we might not be able to find enough affordable bait to put in it.” The change in quota will mean different things for different lobstermen, depending on where they fish and where they are homeported along the coast. Some lobstermen might decide to use less herring in each trap, use a finer mesh bait bag or add a small amount of new bait to the old, rather than dumping it. Other lobstermen might move to hard bait or pogies, although a herring shortage is likely to cause the price for other baits to jump. A long-time bait dealer, who asked to remain anonymous, is alarmed by what 2019 might bring not only to lobstermen, but to Maine’s bait companies. “We are struggling to keep this together,” the dealer wrote in an email. “I am sure the lobstermen will survive. They are not the only ones in crisis.”


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