— By

Staff Writer

The pending new fishing limits that led to the decision to close the Bumble Bee sardine cannery in Prospect Harbor were based on unclear scientific evidence and may do other economic damage in Maine, some industry officials say.

The federal government is poised to impose a new quota for the next three years that will reduce the total allowable catch of Atlantic herring by 37 percent on the East Coast. For the stretch of the New England coast from Cape Cod to the Canadian border, the catch will be reduced by more than 50 percent.

”It’s just not giving us the fish we need to keep the plant viable,” said Melody Kimmel, spokeswoman for Bumble Bee, which announced the closure Wednesday.

Catch limits for the silvery little fish have been the subject of a political tug of war involving numerous groups, including fishermen, the lobster industry, conservationists, tuna fishermen, sport fishermen and whale-watching companies.

Herring are controversial because they play a critical role in the ecosystem as well as the economy. They are forage food for numerous fish, mammal and bird species, and they also are the primary bait for Maine’s lobster industry.

The April closing of the 100-year-old cannery in Prospect Harbor will put 130 people out of work. But the cannery will be just the first of many casualties of the new limits, said David Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

The amount of herring that Maine lobstermen typically use for bait each year exceeds the new quota. As a result, lobstermen will have to switch to other bait, such as menhaden, and have bait trucked in from farther away.

The result will be higher costs for an industry that has been struggling with low lobster prices, Cousens said.

”It could be disastrous for the lobster industry if we don’t get bait from other sources,” he said.

The New England Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission have both voted to recommend adopting the new fishing limits based on the best-available data on the health of the fish stocks. The National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to implement the new limits soon.

The limits will reduce the total allowable catch from 145,000 metric tons per year to 91,250 metric tons per year for 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Along the coast, though, where most herring fishing is done so boats can save fuel, the catch will be reduced from 45,000 metric tons to 22,000 metric tons.

Rules will limit the number of fishing days for different sectors throughout the year. The federal government will halt fishing once the yearly catch reaches 95 percent of the limit.

In the past, when regional fishery managers had more freedom to set regulations, the fishing industry used its influence to weaken the rules, conservationists say. But under the Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization Act of 2006, fishery managers now are required to base fishing limits on the best available scientific data.

It isn’t that the data indicates herring stocks are being overfished, said Lori Steele, who works on herring issues for the New England Fishery Management Council.

Rather, computer models used by scientists to predict the health of herring stocks have been unreliable, leaving scientists uncertain how healthy the stocks are. As a result, she said, scientists are taking a cautious approach when recommending catch limits, she said.

The uncertainty is because of the lack of funding for data-gathering efforts, such as trawl surveys, said Don Perkins of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

”It creates an environment where the politics gets intense,” he said. ”Everybody can argue their side of the story because there is no definite data.”

The next stock assessment is scheduled to occur in fall 2011 or spring 2012.

Steve Weiner, an Ogunquit tuna fisherman who is president of CHOIR, a coalition group that has worked to protect herring stocks from overfishing, said that making fishery management decisions based on science is a positive development. But the science needs to improve so stocks can be managed without devastating coastal communities.

”There can’t be anyone who thinks what happened to that cannery isn’t tragic,” he said. ”These are tough times as it is right now. There can’t be any more of this.”

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

[email protected] It isn’t that the data indicates herring stocks are being overfished, said Lori Steele, who works on herring issues for the New England Fishery Management Council. Rather, computer models used by scientists to predict the health of herring stocks have been unreliable. As a result, scientists are taking a cautious approach when recommending catch limits, she said.