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  • MLCA

Bait Supply Once Again a Summer Worry

Everyone knows you can’t catch lobsters if you don’t have bait. For many generations the preferred lobster bait among Maine lobstermen has been herring. Yet in the past ten years, NOAA’s annual herring quota has steadily shrunk. The most recent allocation, for the 2021-2023 fishing years, reduced the herring quota by 40% from last year, resulting in a 4,681 metric ton quota for 2021.

“This is going to be a bad year,” said Ben Durkee, owner of Bring It Inc., a lobster bait company in Jonesport. “Everyone’s been screaming about a bait shortage for years. This is the year it’s finally going to hit. The problem is that no one had the chance to stock up last year. I’m hearing a lot of people saying there’s no herring already.”

The herring season is divided into two periods, June 1 to September 30 and October 1 to December 31. This year the start of the first period was delayed to June 13. Fishing vessels can land up to 240,000 pounds of herring (equivalent to six truckloads) each week from Sunday evening to Friday evening. After just one week, the entire Area 3 quota and more than half of the overall quota had been landed.

Like other bait companies Down East, Durkee, who operates the business with his father, has developed relationships with Canadian fishermen, whose herring quota is much larger than in the U.S.

Even with his connections in Canada, Durkee is not optimistic about how much herring he can secure this year. “I’m assuming I’ll get it from there if it comes at all,” he said. Much of his inventory is “hard” or frozen bait, such things as tuna heads and rockfish. “We have our own trucks, six now, so we haul it in ourselves,” he said.

Wyatt Anderson, manager of fresh bait for the O’Hara Corporation in Rockland, is equally discouraged about the availability of herring. “I’ve got one boat that tied up on the first of March and it won’t be going out until January first of next year,” he said. “Whatever herring there is will be out of Canada.”

O’Hara’s lack of herring is somewhat balanced by the low numbers of Maine lobstermen setting traps as of mid-June and thus low demand. “I have never seen such a lack of effort as this spring, much more than last year when we had a 90-day shutdown,” Anderson commented. “There are a lot of boats on the bank still.”

Securing hard bait, on the other hand, has not been a problem for the company. Frozen bait manager Seth Anderson sees demand remaining steady this year, as in years past. “We’re doing all right now. We’ve got good relationships with our sources and don’t have to deal with any trucking issues,” he said. “Of course, the cost of fuel is going up but otherwise there’s been no slowdown in terms of trucking.” Inventory of the standard types of hard bait — frozen rockfish heads and racks, redfish, tuna and carp heads — is ample at the moment, but Anderson knows that come late summer he will be hard pressed to meet the demand. “That’s when it’s flying out the door. It’s hard to keep up, every year,” he said.

Port Clyde lobsterman Gerry Cushman understands the precarious state of bait supplies well. Three years ago in the face of a sharp cut in the herring quota, he decided to ensure that he and other lobstermen in his area had the bait they needed when they needed it. He built a storage facility adjacent to Route 1 in Warren capable of storing nine shipping containers of bait. “I buy from Cape Seafood, Lunds,” he said. “I keep my operating costs low. There’re no employees. It’s an honor system. I use cameras and a slip book to keep track.”

While the supply of bait needed to keep the state’s thousands of lobstermen stocked has not yet reached a critical point, Cushman feels that his building gives him some security if in fact a bait crisis does occur. “That year if the pogies had not shown up in Maine there wouldn’t have been enough freezer infrastructure to supply lobstermen. The ocean suddenly exploded with pogies. But there may be a shortage in the future. With climate change, who’s to say?” he said.

Many bait companies and lobstermen are looking at pogies (menhaden) once again as a solution to the lack of available herring. This year’s state allocated menhaden fishery opened on June 14 with a quota of 2.19 million pounds which was caught in six days, with the fishery closing on June 23. Landings were limited to 23,800 pounds per vessel which could be landed four days per week. Maine’s Episodic Events Fishery opened on June 25 with a quota of approximately 4.28 million pounds, with a weekly vessel limit of 14,000 pounds or 40 barrels. The small-scale fishery, which opens once the Episodic Events quota is reached, limits a vessel’s daily landing to 6,000 pounds or 17 barrels with landings allowed three days per week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Durkee noted that many of the lobstermen he supplies are relying on pogies and pig hide bait for their day-to-day bait, supplementing with other species when available. Wyatt Anderson also anticipates pogies saving the day once again for Maine lobstermen. “They are just showing up now. They should get the guys through the season.”


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