The Maine Department of Marine Resources wants to close a fast-growing lobster bait fishery to newcomers for two years so it has time to come up with a new management, licensing and enforcement plan.

“Closing fisheries is kind of a radical step and a dangerous step because it eliminates diversity,” said Commissioner Pat Keliher. “We’re not saying close it in perpetuity. Close it to see if there is a different approach here that would allow us to get both enforcement and reporting back under control.”

Vincent Balzano of Saco, who fishes for menhaden – also known as pogy – out of Portland, supports temporarily closing the menhaden fishery to new applicants.

“It allows us to put the brakes on, get a handle on the fishery,” said Balzano, a third-generation fisherman. “Sound, responsible fishery management is a benefit to all. It’s a benefit to the industry, a benefit to the resource and a benefit to the state as a whole.”

Menhaden provide an important alternative source of bait for lobster traps when herring isn’t available. Menhaden are small, schooling fish that are important food for whales, larger fish, seabirds and others. They’re also harvested commercially for use in fish oil and aquaculture feed.

Keliher said the 2019 menhaden season was challenging because of “a perfect storm of circumstances.” A sharp reduction in the herring quota spurred huge growth in the menhaden fleet, with 50 new boats rushing to satisfy the $485 million lobster industry’s need for substitute bait.

What followed was a management and enforcement nightmare, according to Keliher.

A late start to the lobster season drove many of those fishermen to spend the early summer fishing for menhaden along with the primary 246-boat bait fleet, rather than haul empty lobster traps. This led to large menhaden landings at a time when there was no market for them, he said.

Ideally, state regulators would like to have bait landings occur when the lobster fishery needs them.

But Maine landed its 2.4 million pounds of menhaden quota in June, before the lobster season even began. Maine boats kept fishing by tapping into other states’ unused quotas and a shared New England quota. They had landed 17.4 million pounds by the end of the season, but the lobster industry’s demand was still weak.

The state opened up what it calls its small scale fishery in late July, which allows anyone with a license to catch up to 17 barrels, or about 6,000 pounds, of menhaden a day to keep the supply of fresh menhaden coming in as the lobster season finally began in earnest.

That led to enforcement problems, however. Fishermen told the state that some menhaden fishing boats were exceeding their daily allotment by working in tandem with carrier vessels, transferring multiple 17-barrel catches to carrier vessels that would claim the landings as their own.

Keliher said he is concerned about those management and enforcement problems, but he said they do not pose a threat to the menhaden stock itself, which interstate fishing regulators say is at record high numbers, especially in New England.

But the state wants to tighten up its regulatory structure so it can defend future attempts to get the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to increase Maine’s annual half-percent share of the 476.2 million pound East Coast quota for pogies.

The state had considered a two-tiered licensing system that would require fishermen to join a large-scale or small-scale menhaden fishery, with large-scale boats scrambling to catch as much of the state quota as they could as fast as they could, and small-scale boats getting a steady but smaller daily limit.

But many menhaden fishermen didn’t like that idea, prompting Keliher to scrap it and consider freezing the fishery at its current size for two years instead. He will present a plan for doing so to state lawmakers on the Marine Resources Committee in February.

Dustin Delano of Friendship, a lobsterman who has been fishing for menhaden for three years, supports a temporary closure, but said the state must reopen the fishery as fast as it can to make sure Maine’s lobster industry has a steady source of bait, and so young lobster fishermen can have access to other fisheries.

Most of Maine’s other valuable fisheries, such as lobster, scallops, elvers and urchins, have license caps that force newcomers to join waiting lists, some of which are as long as 10 years, or hope to win a lottery for a few coveted openings available statewide every few years.

“At 29, I don’t have access to any other fisheries except lobstering,” Delano said.

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