Interstate fishing authorities took steps Monday to try to keep New England lobster pots full of fresh bait during the peak season.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted many of the same measures that Maine implemented last year to try to “stretch out” the limited quota of inshore Atlantic herring into late summer, when lobster boat captains in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts are clamoring for what many fishermen say is the best, and formerly cheapest, kind of lobster bait.

The commission voted to allow regulators to set weekly herring quotas, to limit fishing to certain days of the week, and to give the three states that regulate the inshore herring fishery in the southern Gulf of Maine the ability to limit or ban the use of so-called “carrier vessels” that transfer herring landed by a licensed boat so it can keep fishing instead of heading back to port to unload its haul.

The measures will create a level playing field for herring fishermen from the three states, give states the flexibility they need to give small fishing boat fleets the opportunity to land herring even in a more restrictive market, and, most importantly, supply the states’ lobster fisheries with much needed bait, said Terry Stockwell of the Maine Department of Marine Fisheries, who proposed the measures.

The three states will meet on May 23 to discuss which herring restrictions they will enact in the inshore summer herring fishery.

These measures are all about keeping Maine’s booming lobster industry well stocked with bait, both now and into the future, Stockwell said. Lobster landings hit record highs in both cash value and catch in 2016, which meant a record high demand for herring. Despite the demand, Maine reported its smallest herring catch in at least five years. The 77.2 million pounds was down from a high of 103.5 million pounds in 2014, according to state records.

That market meant the small herring catch commanded a record value, $19 million, at Maine docks. The price of herring doubled at the high point of the market, jumping from $300 a metric ton to $600, according to interstate fishing records. That also meant lobstermen found themselves paying double or sometimes more for their favorite bait – when they could even get it.

Fishing regulators are struggling to explain the recent herring shortage. In the past, East Coast fishermen from as far south as New Jersey have trawled for herring in the deeper offshore waters of Georges Bank while a small fleet of purse seine boats have scooped up herring in the inshore waters in the southern Gulf of Maine. In recent years, however, the Georges Bank catch has been late, if it comes at all.

As of Monday, fishermen had caught just 7 metric tons of herring, with the catch split rather evenly between Georges Bank and Cashes Ledge. This time last year, fishermen had landed 12.8 metric tons of herring, with most of that coming from Georges Bank. The inshore herring fishery area targeted by the new restrictions will not open until June 1.

Some scientists believe that warming ocean temperatures have prevented the herring from returning to Georges Bank, while some fishermen say the herring swim there but in deeper waters than before, and mixed in with schools of haddock. Haddock is a highly regulated fish species, with severe penalties for catching too many even if they are caught while trying to land herring, so the Georges Bank captains won’t cast nets if the schools are mixed.

When the offshore herring can’t be caught, the herring fleet looks inshore to the Gulf of Maine, where herring stocks remain healthy, at least for now. This inshore fishery can’t support the entire lobster bait industry, so regulators have implemented a seasonal herring quota for this inshore fishery so that the population isn’t overfished to meet bait demands.

The problem comes when inshore fishing boats catch the summer herring quota too fast, ripping through the total allowable catch in a matter of weeks when it needs to feed an entire industry’s traps during its busiest months. Last year, Maine regulators enacted emergency herring restrictions when its landing data showed the quota would be used up in July, leaving its lobstermen without bait in August.

New Hampshire and Massachusetts eventually adopted the rules, too. The herring fishery stayed open and lobster pots were filled, albeit at record high prices.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

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