The lobster bait crisis that plagued New England this summer is finally over, now that fishermen have begun to catch herring off Georges Bank.

But the price of lobstermen’s favorite bait fish, which rose dramatically when the offshore fleet wasn’t landing enough herring to refill empty bait freezers, has remained high through the end of peak lobster season, typically August through late October. Although there’s been no appreciable effect on consumer prices, lobstermen agree the shortage hurt their bottom line.

“Earlier this year, when prices were at their highest, I paid $170 for a barrel of herring and I usually pay about $110 for that same barrel,” said Jeff Putnam, a lobsterman out of Chebeague Island. “Like a lot of guys, I like to fish herring, but with prices like that, I turned to pogeys, but then pogey prices went up, too. Overall, I would say my bait costs are up 15 percent this year.”

Putnam has fared better than other lobstermen, especially those who fish out of the more isolated wharves or island communities and always have had a harder time securing a steady and affordable source of fresh bait. Prices vary from wharf to wharf, and the impact of bait costs varies from one boat to the next. Terry Savage Sr., who fishes out of the Cranberry Isles Fishermen’s Co-Op, said his bait costs have almost doubled this year,

“Some of it is because I hired a new sternman this year, and I had to teach him how to bait the traps, how to stack the new bait over the old and ration herring out, using pogeys and redfish heads to make it last,” Savage said. “But also, our bait is barged out to the island, and the barge company jacked prices up, and I’ve got no choice but to pay. I can’t fish without bait.”

The price of herring has come down from the summer high in most harbors, although not all the way down, lobstermen say. But in more far-flung places like Cranberry Island, fishermen like Savage say the prices remain high, even though the offshore herring are finally coming in. Prices rose when Maine lobstermen had to rely entirely on the inshore herring catch and alternative bait fish like menhaden to lure lobsters to their pots.

The lobster industry is Maine’s most lucrative commercial fishery. Last year’s catch was valued at more than $500 million.

CHASING THE BAIT

The bait crisis began early this summer when the offshore fishing fleet that trawls for herring off Georges Bank, an underwater plateau in the relatively shallow waters off the New England coast between Maine and Cape Cod, was coming up empty. Some fleet captains said the herring simply weren’t there, while others said they were, but were mixed in too closely with the quota-restricted haddock to fish.

Herring also is a managed fishery, with a quota that is divided up among four different zones and rules about what kind of fishing, like purse seine and trawling, can occur in each zone. Most of the nation’s Atlantic herring comes from Georges Bank – about 40 percent of the 108,975 metric tons of herring allowed to be landed in 2016. So a dry period in Georges Bank can empty bait freezers pretty fast.

At the start of September, when Maine lobstering is in the middle of peak season, the offshore fleet had only landed 8,700 metric tons of herring, which wasn’t even 20 percent of its maximum allowable catch for the year. At the same time last year, the offshore fleet had landed three times that amount of herring. Even that amount had lobstermen grumbling about scarce bait fish conditions.

An offshore shortage puts tremendous pressure on the inshore herring fishery in the Gulf of Maine, where summer fishing is limited to purse seine vessel fishing, with no trawling allowed. Regulators worried the inshore fleet would run through its much smaller herring quota too fast, leaving lobstermen in Maine and Massachusetts with no bait at all during the busiest time of their year.

STOCK MANAGEMENT

The agencies that manage the herring fishery – the Maine Department of Marine Resources, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the New England Fishery Management Council – took steps to limit inshore herring fishing, adding days-out-of-the-water provisions and daily catch limits in hopes of stretching that inshore quota through the end of peak lobster season.

The strategy appears to have worked. Regulators had worried about hitting the inshore quota in late summer, but with additional management, they kept it open through Oct. 18, after having landed 27,908 metric tons, or about 93 percent of the annual herring quota. Despite tremendous pressure, that is just about two weeks earlier than the inshore fleet hit its quota last year.

Patrice McCarron, the director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, applauded the way regulators handled the bait shortage. Lobstermen didn’t want the high prices or bait shortage in July, but they could live with the situation then, and learn to ration their herring use, McCarron said. But running out of herring during peak season, when most lobstermen earn the bulk of their profits, could have been catastrophic, she said.

Luckily, the offshore fleet finally began to find haddock-free schools of herring off Georges Bank in mid-September, according to weekly herring landing reports from the fisheries division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They doubled the amount of herring landed in the zone, which traditionally stands out as one of the nation’s most productive fisheries, in just three weeks.

“There is always a risk of something like this in a wild-caught fishery,” McCarron said. “You can’t create supply. Herring just wasn’t available, and no manager can fix that. I think the managers did the best they could to stretch the inshore bait out as long as they did, but there’s no doubt, it cost us more than ever to bait our traps this year.”

The association has been monitoring the bait situation throughout the summer, but its board won’t have the time, or the data, to analyze the way that it played out until the winter when many Maine lobstermen crunch their year-end budget numbers. The association expects to consider what steps should be taken to avoid or at least mitigate the impact of another shortage in the future.

Some lobstermen already have some recommendations. Putnam, the Chebeague Island lobsterman, sits on the Department of Marine Resource’s Lobster Advisory Council and wants Maine to push federal regulators for a bigger share of the national herring quota, as well as the most popular alternative bait fish, menhaden, which are also called pogeys. Fishermen know both of these fish are here in greater numbers now, he said, and government surveys are backing that up.