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Co-ops Plan for Bait Scarcity

Fishermen with bait and a sunrise in the background

Photo courtesy of Abe Philbrook

The fact that the quota for Atlantic herring took a sharp and painful drop this year has set Maine lobstermen on edge. Herring is still the preferred bait for many and the absence of 77 million pounds of the fish will affect lobstermen up and down the coast. Yet many of Maine’s fishing cooperatives and companies are looking at the situation pragmatically.

“We invested in getting quite a lot of frozen herring in now,” explained Kenny Lemoine, president of the Swan’s Island Fishermen’s Co-op. “We bought it in trailer loads and keep it in freezers in New Brunswick.” Lemoine said that over time the Co-op’s 34 members have moved from using mostly herring to less than 30% herring. Buying Canadian herring and storing it in New Brunswick until needed works well because the Co-op sells its lobsters to New Brunswick dealers. “They come down here after the lobsters and they bring herring. So they are coming here already,” Lemoine said. Including menhaden, known as pogies, in the bait supply will be key to making sure all the Co-op’s lobstermen have sufficient bait, Lemoine added. “Fresh pogies and the stockpile will get us through,” he said. Allen Daggett of Cape Porpoise Lobster is also facing this season calmly. “Most of my guys switched from herring last year. I sell a lot of hard bait,” he said. Lobstermen who buy bait from him use flatfish racks, such as haddock and monkfish, as well as skates, for their bait in addition to pogies. Most of those come from out of state. “The flatfish and mixed fish racks originally come from Maine but go to New York to be filleted and then come back as racks. I had 100 drums of flatfish in the cooler this morning and now they’re gone,” Daggett said. He views the furor over the herring quota cut with a certain degree of perspective. “I’ve been doing this for 45 years,” Daggett said. “Forty years ago it was all redfish racks. Then everyone was into herring. Now they are getting away from herring and the redfish are coming back.” Patrick Sault, Vinalhaven Fishermen’s Co-op manager, isn’t too worried by the looming scarcity of herring. “It won’t be much different than last year. We do a lot of frozen bait. Of course, we are also looking for alternative baits,” he said. Co-op members use frozen rockfish, red head, tuna heads, and pig hide as their baits. “Right now the red heads are popular. We’ll also use locally caught fresh pogies or frozen later on,” Sault said. “So yes, I am concerned but I don’t think there will be much of a change here this summer.” The members of the Friendship Fishermen’s Heritage Co-op see it differently, according to Co-op secretary Gerry Laine. “We use about 75% fresh or frozen herring. It is going to cost us a lot of money. Some of these guys spend more than $75,000 a year right now just to bait up,” he said. Laine, who’s been lobstering for decades, worries about how the younger Co-op members, those with $500,000 offshore boats and big monthly payments, are going to get through the season. “I know the price will double. I’ve got 40 boats here. We can go through 300 to 400 bushels in a day in the summer,” he said. “Either you get the bait or you stay home.”

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