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Business and Economy

Herring Shortage May Affect the Price of Lobster

Usually a Maine lobsterman can choose to either fish or cut bait, but as the result of a herring shortage, neither may be an option for awhile. Local lobster co-op managers say fishermen may have to pay more for imported frozen bait from New Brunswick until the herring spawning season ends and stocks return to normal levels off the Georges Bank. In the meantime, new state harvest restrictions for herring fishermen may also be implemented.

Inside the lobstermen’s co-op in Corea, a small Downeast fishing village, the phone is ringing off the hook. Some are lobster dealers contacting co-op manager Warren Polk about prices, but more want to know about the availability of bait. And in Corea, Polk is doing a little bit better than others in that department.

“I got a load of frozen bait in this morning out of Canada,” Polk said.

Maine lobstermen prefer the herring that is caught in the Gulf of Maine and from the Georges Bank off Massachusetts. But herring fishermen are not catching the small silver-colored fish in significant numbers The herring fishery is limited to a little more than 19,000 metric tons through the harvest season that ends in September.

Maine fishermen who fish closer to shore are concerned that some of their larger out-of-state competitors may come here and deplete the local resource if they can’t find the herring they need off the Georges Bank. Pat Keliher, Maine’s commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, has developed a plan to address potential herring overfishing in the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Area 1A that runs along the Maine coast north from Cape Cod.

“Our plan is to ensure that that there is a supply of bait coming from Area 1A into at least early September – that is at least our goal,” Keliher said. “So we are going to institute some controlled harvest measures and they’ll be published late today or first thing tomorrow morning.”

Keliher hopes that by restricting the amount of herring that can be caught along the Maine coast, lobster fishermen will be assured of a consistent source of bait for the next several weeks as the summer harvest season peaks.

Fluctuations in fuel and bait prices can create a ripple effect that begins at the co-op and ends at the dinner table. At the Maine Shellfish Co. in Ellsworth, general manager Jim Markos sends his fleet of blue and yellow trucks all over New England with fresh Maine seafood products. He says access to bait can influence a fisherman’s ability to meet harvest goals and that can potentially influence lobster availability and prices.

“Any disruption in the normal supply this summer will put additional pressure on those prices,” says Markos. “And we think they’re in the stratosphere now and hopefully there will be some moderation in that price.”

Brian Langley runs the Union River Lobster Pot Restaurant in Ellsworth during the tourist season and, for the last two winters, he’s served as a state senator on the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee. He says the market will determine lobster prices and that while prices are currently up, it hasn’t had much of an impact on the demand for lobster pie, lobster stew or any of the other menu items that feature lobster.

“The price has been consistently up there I think throughout the winter and early into the spring,” says Langley. “And again that’s market driven if you can keep selling them for that price, they’ll keep buying them.”

In the meantime, co-op managers such as Warren Polk in Corea hope that fisheries experts are right when they say Maine’s current herring shortage is only temporary.