First published in the MLA Newsletter, December, 2012.
Maine lobstermen use a lot of different things to bait their traps: tuna heads, rockfish, alfonsino, alewives, and many other fish they believe will attract lobsters. But their bait of choice traditionally has been herring. Lobstermen swear by the oily rotten splendor of Culpea harangis to lure even the most finicky lobster into the trap.
So the strength of the herring season is a constant worry in the minds of lobstermen each year. How are the fish doing? Are they schooling up well or broken into scattered clumps? Are they hiding on the bottom or moving up and down the water column? Strong landings of herring throughout the year but particularly in the fall months are critical to many Maine lobstermen. This year the National Marine Fisheries Service closed the herring season on November 5, when fishing vessels had reached 101% of the yearly quota overall.
Wyatt Anderson runs the O’Hara Corporation’s bait division in Rockland. The company operates two mid-water trawlers, the Sunlight and the Starlight, which fish for herring on Georges Bank and in the Gulf of Maine. According to Anderson, 2012 was a decent year for herring. “We had a little glitch back in the early spring when there were few fish. But generally we did well out there,” he said. The two vessels between them can return 750,000 pounds of fish in one trip. “The fact that all the quota was caught is to me a sign that the stock’s in good shape,” he added.
The annual quota of herring is divided into four different areas in the Gulf of Maine (see table). In 2009 the National Marine Fisheries Service reduced the herring quota sharply based on its stock assessment and a conservative view of the stock’s overall strength (scientific uncertainty). In addition, it instituted a policy that required any overharvesting in one year to be “paid for” in the next through a reduction in that year’s quota.
Glenn Lawrence runs the Double Eagle, a wooden sardine carrier berthed in Rockland. He credits the good catches this year to the prohibition on mid-water trawlers fishing in the Gulf of Maine during the summer months which has been in place since 2007. “The fish were bunched up good,” he said. He found many juveniles, which once would have been suitable for canning, schooling around Matinic Island and fewer of the larger fish, sought by lobstermen for bait. “But it was certainly better than last year,” Lawrence added.
From a bait dealer’s perspective, it was a pretty good year as well. “There were a couple of dry spots [this spring] in between Area 2 closing and before Area 1A opened up,” Jenny Bichrest, owner of Purse Line Bait in Sebasco Estates, said. “Then it got tight again sometime in September, early October as the spawning closures came on. For three weeks no one caught any fish.” Her business was well supplied throughout the summer with herring caught on Georges Bank and in Area 1A. Yet Bichrest wasn’t happy that the season closed so early with another two lobstering months remaining in the year. “I would have like to put up a little more but I think we’re O.K.,” she said.
Glenn Robbins runs the 78-foot purse seiner Western Wave. This year he found himself setting on mostly juvenile herring around Mt. Desert Rock; the larger fish were found off Ipswich, Massachusetts, Portland and the Outer Falls. The herring behaved differently than in years past, Robbins said. “They wouldn’t come up to feed. You’d only get one set and then they’d go to the bottom and you would have to wait until morning for the next set,” he explained. “They just didn’t react as they used to.” Overall, however, the fishing was better this year than last year and much better than in 2010. “I’ve been fishing for 45 years and 2010 was the worst year I ever had,” Robbins said emphatically.
Things look brighter for next year. A benchmark stock assessment conducted this summer found the herring resource to be healthy. The New England Fishery Management Council’s “preferred alternative” proposes to set the 2013-2015 annual catch limit (ACL) at 107,800 mt which represents a 16,600 mt increase over the last three year period. The NEFMC has put forward several options on how those additional fish will be allocated amongst the management areas, including equally distributing the additional fish amongst all management areas, allocating the additional fish to best meet the demands of the fishery, and reallocating the small Area 1B quota to other areas. Even after subtracting the paybacks required for areas where too many fish were landed last year, more herring will be available to the industry in 2013. According to Anderson, “Everyone says that there’s more fish out there than the scientists say”. Bichrest is also glad that there will be additional quota next year. Her major concern isn’t herring, however, but menhaden. Many of her lobstermen prefer “pogies” to herring; the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is considering a substantial cut in the quota for that fish. “If they drop the quota on pogies the way they want to, then it will be really scary because I sell a lot more pogies than herring,” she explained.