ELLSWORTH — Maine’s lobstermen received some much-needed good news in the last several days about a looming shortage of bait for their traps, though some of the bait they use may seem a bit strange to lobsters from the Gulf of Maine.
Late last month, the Department of Marine Resources approved the use of the blackbelly rosefish for lobster bait. Last week, Cooke Aquaculture USA announced that the exotic fish will be harvested from the South Atlantic off Uruguay and frozen at sea as a whole fish by factory trawlers owned by another subsidiary of Canadian salmon farming and fisheries giant Cooke Seafood.
The frozen fish will be imported by Cooke Aquaculture, which operates several salmon farms Downeast and a processing plant in Machiasport, and distributed through a network of Maine bait dealers.
As of Tuesday morning, Cooke had not publicly disclosed the distribution channels or anticipated price it will charge for the new bait.
The lobster industry was enthused by the announcement of DMR’s approval of the new bait source.
In a statement, Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, described the availability of rosefish as “a very promising solution to a serious issue.”
There is also more help on the way for lobstermen dealing with Draconian cuts in the Atlantic herring fishing quota imposed by the New England Fishery Management Council earlier this year and scheduled to get worse in 2020 and 2021.
The annual quota was just under 50,000 metric tons in 2018 after averaging about 110,000 metric tons in the early 2000s. The 2019 quota was cut by 70 percent to about 15,000 metric tons because of poor recruitment of juvenile fish. A new stock assessment is scheduled for June of next year.
Last week, DMR announced that it had approved the use of individually quick-frozen menhaden from the Gulf of Mexico for use as bait. Menhaden from along the Atlantic Coast, known as “pogies,” are already used for bait by Maine lobstermen, though access to those fish has been limited as well. Maine’s allocated quota share for 2019 of 2,438,677 pounds was reached by the final week of June.
On Monday, the menhaden fishery reopened in Maine under the extremely limited “episodic event set aside (EESA) program” that gives Maine a quota of approximately 4.7 million pounds.
Participation in the EESA requires daily reporting and DMR will enforce that requirement strictly because violations could jeopardize Maine’s future access to the menhaden fishery.
According to DMR, there are currently more than 528 active license permits issued that allow for landing menhaden. Of those, more than 159 individuals opted into the EESA fishery.
The harvest capacity of that fleet is above 2 million pounds weekly, so it was “imperative to reduce the weekly harvest limit by one truck to avoid the depletion of the menhaden supply at a time when it may not be readily used.”
Menhaden have already been sighted in state waters as far east as Penobscot Bay.