ELLSWORTH — Maine lobstermen are catching it coming and going, but the “it” ain’t lobsters.
Last month, the lobster industry found itself confronted with a demand from federal fisheries regulators that it reduce the risk it posed to endangered right whales by 60 percent and began the arduous task of figuring out how to remove half the vertical buoy lines attached to lobster traps from the water.
Though it came as no surprise, earlier this month the New England Fishery Management Council announced that the already scant amount of herring allowed to be caught off the coast of New England would be further reduced in 2020 and 2021.
This year’s quota is about 33.2 million pounds. For the next two years, the allowable herring catch would be reduced to about 25.5 million pounds — a cut of about 23 percent.
The cut would reduce the herring catch to its lowest level in decades and is less than a quarter of the 2017 total. The council’s recommendation is subject to approval by NOAA Fisheries, a part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
For Maine lobstermen who rely heavily on herring for bait, the numbers are even more depressing.
This year, the allowable catch limit for the inshore waters of the Gulf of Maine is just about 9.6 million pounds — 28.9 percent of the total for all waters. In 2020 and 2021, assuming nothing happens to reduce the inshore quota further, allowable landings from what is known as Area 1A will drop to just about 7.4 million pounds — a cut of about 23 percent.
The cuts in the herring quota are nothing new. Federal fisheries managers also reduced quota last year and warned of further cuts because of concerns about the number of herring in the water and poor recruitment of juvenile herring into the fishery.
Up and down the coast, lobstermen are projecting serious bait shortages and sky high prices for what bait is available this summer.
Lobstermen with the wherewithal and access to the facilities are buying as much bait as they can now and freezing it for use later in the summer when the lobster season gets rolling.
The Maine Lobstermen’s Association and the Department of Marine Resources are also looking for new sources of bait, but it’s not an easy quest.
While some fishermen are laying in buckets of pig or cow hide bait, DMR has strict rules governing what kind of non-native fish species may be used to bait traps so as to prevent the spread of parasites or disease that are not found naturally in Maine waters.
As yet unapproved, apparently, until handling and chain of custody issues are resolved are species such as menhaden (pogies) from an abundant Gulf of Mexico fishery and Asian carp that are overwhelming Midwest rivers.
Also unapproved, this time by the U.S. House of Representatives, was an amendment to an appropriations bill offered by Second District Congressman Jared Golden that would have prevented NOAA Fisheries from using a “risk assessment” computer model it created as a basis for new regulations that would require Maine lobstermen to remove vertical lines from the water. The model has yet to undergo independent peer review and DMR and the lobster industry contend that the model is deeply flawed.
In April, NOAA’s Large Whale Take Reduction Team announced a plan to reduce whale deaths by at least 60 percent by forcing lobstermen in Maine to reduce the amount of vertical lines they are allowed to have in the water.
The plan was based on data and projections from the NOAA risk assessment tool, but stakeholders had little time to review the model. The model also relied on a stakeholder opinion survey about what risks endangered whales face, but those opinions were never vetted by a social scientist.
According to Golden, and DMR, the risk model also relies on habitat data from the mid-Atlantic region, not the Gulf of Maine and fails to consider changing patterns of whale migration since 2010.
In April, NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center Director Jon Hare said regulators frequently have to make decisions despite scientific uncertainty and that uncertainty does not exempt a federal agency from enforcing laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
According to Hare, the model is the best science available for the government’s right whale protection efforts and that is all that is required.
Last week, the House voted 345-84 to kill the amendment to the Department of Commerce spending bill.
Of course, if there’s no bait available this summer, the reduction in vertical lines may prove less of a burden than expected.