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Maine’s lobstermen find alternative bait

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PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A surge in the catch of a small species of fish called menhaden off the Maine coast has helped stabilize a bait crunch that’s plagued the state’s lobster industry for several years.

Maine’s lobster fishermen typically bait their traps with dead herring, but a scientific assessment in 2020 found that herring are overfished, and quotas for the fish were reduced dramatically. The loss of herring has increased the price of bait and made it harder for many fishermen to trap lobsters.

However, losing herring has been offset somewhat by swelling catches of menhaden. Maine’s catch of menhaden — also called pogies or bunker — grew from about 6 million pounds in 2016 to more than 24 million pounds last year.

The bait shortage has been happening at a time of high lobster prices for consumers. However, the prices of bait and lobster aren’t necessarily linked because of the complex lobster supply chain.

The cost of bait is still a struggle for the state’s lobstermen, but the greater availability of menhaden has been beneficial, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

“These local menhaden landings have proved to be a very important and stable source of bait for a lot of lobstermen,” McCarron said, using the term “landings” to mean catch brought to the dock.

Menhaden are subject to one of the largest commercial fisheries in the U.S., and nationwide catches have been stable. U.S. fishermen typically catch more than a billion pounds of the fish every year, and they’re widely used in animal feed, farmed fish food and fish oil. Bait is a small piece of the total fishery.

The regulatory Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is working on potential new rules

governing menhaden fishing. One reason for the possible rule changes is “the increasing abundance of menhaden in New England,” the commission said in a statement.

The population of menhaden off New England has ebbed and flowed over the years. The recent high catches are the most in Maine since the mid-1980s, state records show. Catches are also up in Massachusetts.

Herring fishermen in the state are also hopeful they’ll be able to catch more herring again in the coming years, said Mary Beth Tooley, director of government affairs for the O’Hara Corporation, a herring harvester in Rockland, Maine.

The nationwide catch of herring was more than 100 million pounds as recently as 2017, but slumped to less than 21 million last year. The herring fishery is based mostly in Maine and Massachusetts.

“I think if we had these low herring quotas and menhaden wasn’t as abundant as it has been, that would be a huge problem,” Tooley said.

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I've always said we will run out of bait way before lobster up here. I don't think many people realize just how much bait lobsterman use here, it's a crazy amount. 

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I used to used two 55 gallon drums of flounder frames daily. I had to buy it in New Bedford.

Even getting enough bait to run 10 traps in the canal can be a challenge. It's one of the reasons I took a hiatus from canal lobstering.

Edited by bob_G

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Interesting- is it the type and availability of bait or the cost of the bait?  
I know here in RI they also used lots of skates.  Maybe the skate market is now too expensive because they are considered a food for restaurants? 

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Didn' t realize the quantity needed, can put a hurt on any species. Like the dead frame flounder baits or salmon skins, what else besides fertilizer could they be used for?

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2 mins ago, DZ said:

Interesting- is it the type and availability of bait or the cost of the bait?  
I know here in RI they also used lots of skates.  Maybe the skate market is now too expensive because they are considered a food for restaurants? 

Yea. :laugh:

It's all of the above.  Commercial ground fish frames such as cod, haddock, flounder make up the bulk of the bait for commercial lobstermen in Ma.  But many places no longer cut fish. It's often bought as fillets from Canada and now Alaska.  The commercial processing plant right by my home (Lobster Trap Co) barely cut enough fish for their small retail store.

Sea herring are a prime bait source in Maine.  But again, demand far exceeds supply.

I used to buy fresh skate directly off a dragger in New Bedford. It was sort of pricey, but great bait.  But even then restaurants and some overseas markets were beginning to buy it, so the bait option stalled.

If you're fishing 400-700 traps you need massive volumes of good bait daily.   I read recently some enterprising guys are looking into the possibility of netting Asian carp and shipping them north solely as lobster bait. Again, a possible option, but it isn't going to be cheap, or cost effective as they say today.

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Back when we had traps in the canal and bait was scarce we would use sheep skin with wool still on, soak in bunker oil and hang in the trap. It worked.................

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Both Bunker and Skate of late has been the targeted bait in the traps along with racks from blue fish and any other fish you can find the racks from. Peace and Prayers

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Fifty years ago, I would buy a bucket of what i remember being called redfish from local commercial lobstermen. They would get me enough to bait my ever dwindling number of traps (I started with ten). It was scooped into my bucket from big drums on the deck of their boats and handed over the rail. It would almost fall apart so we had to bag it as opposed to just hanging it. I remember the smell almost making me gag.... Thinking back on it, it was probably days old decomposing bunker.

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