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Bait Supply Remains Strong

First published in Landings, September 2023

The fundamental fact of the lobster fishery is that a lobster trap must have bait in it to catch lobster. What that bait is depends on the preferences of the lobsterman, the availability of different baits and, of course, the price. As Maine lobstermen head into the busy fall months, they keep a close eye on what types of lobster bait are available and in what quantity.

According to Jimmy Wotton, co-owner of Georges River Bait Company in Warren, frozen or “hard” bait is in good supply. “We’ve got plenty of bait,” he said in mid-August, “lot of frozen pogies, redfish, carp, rockfish.” The demand for frozen menhaden, or pogies, is low at the moment due to strong landings coming from local boats fishing for the popular fish. Wotton anticipates demand will rise for his frozen pogies when the menhaden schools move off in mid-September.

Maine's increased menhaden quota has stabilized bait supply this year. Island Institute photo.

“We’re still waiting for the herring,” Wotton continued . “The fish are in shoal water now and the big boats can’t get in. That will change though.” In Herring Management Area 1A (inshore), vessels can catch up to 70.8% of the quota allotted to the area between June 1 and September 30; the remaining 27.2% is available from October 1 to December 31. The Area 1A quota this year is 3,315 metric tons (7.3 million pounds).

“We are sitting pretty good although prices have dropped a bit,” he said. Brandon Lovejoy at J&K bait in Addison says supply and demand are “good overall.” Prices for both herring and menhaden are down from last year. Like other bait dealers, he’s noticed that the amount of herring coming in is less this year than last summer. “A lot of boats are fishing menhaden so that’s strong,” he said.

Maine’s quota for menhaden jumped sharply this year. Last year the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) amended the menhaden fishery management plan, increasing the overall quota and changing the allocations to each state. The Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for menhaden in 2023 is 233,550 metric tons, a 20% increase from the previous year. Maine’s allocation of the TAC is now 4.80%, or 24,510,314 pounds. In prior years Maine was allowed just a half-percent of the total quota. Maine was only able to exceed that quota by tapping unused quotas from other states allowing the Maine fleet to land at least 20 million pounds in each of the past four years.

Menhaden is flowing into lobster traps in Downeast Maine, according to Ben Durkee, proprietor of Bring It bait in Jonesport. His major problem? “We’re competing against guys selling it cheaper,” he said. The Department of Marine Resources Marine Patrol Bureau has instigated reports of Maine boats fishing more often and above their weekly quota this summer. “Throughout the coast, we’ve written plenty of tickets ,” said Marine Patrol Colonel Matt Talbot.

Durkee gets his herring from U.S. and Canadian suppliers. “It’s still popular and the price is down a little compared to last year,” he said. But, like Wotton, he also is waiting for volume to go up. “The boats are sort of struggling this year. They’re trying to find where they are,” he said.

Lobstermen have learned to adapt to newer baits, such as pig hide, because the supply is steady. According to Durkee, pig hide remains a popular bait among lobstermen in his area, who often combine it with fresh bait. “But the price for it is up this year,” Durkee said.

Tom Camino, owner of Nor’east Bait in York, focuses on pig hide bait, although this year he has also begun stocking frozen redfish heads from Iceland and Norway. He found that procuring pig hide from his usual suppliers, large pork manufacturers, has gotten harder since 2020. “The big companies are selling the hides overseas, through the fat trim market, primarily to China,” he said. “I’ve gone to smaller plants but they have labor and product issues. I’ll order a full truck and get half.”

To ensure he has the variety and amount that his customers need, when they need it, Camino decided in 2021 to stock up on inventory in the winter and, as he put it, “just sit on it. If you don’t then you will run out in summer and then when you order, they’ve raised their prices.” He’s also noticed this year that with the abundance of pogies, the demand for pig hide has dropped slightly.

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