Maine lobstermen are facing a major challenge as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) this month reduced the amount of Atlantic Herring fishermen can haul by more than half.
The herring are the primary bait that lobstermen use, and NOAA says the number of juveniles is so low that catch limits are needed to protect the species. Maine fishermen are saying the change could be catastrophic, and could lead to bait shortages, high prices and a ripple effect throughout the coastal economy.
Some are taking action and getting out of the business, while others are preparing for shortages.
Gerry Cushman, who has been a lobsterman for 30 years, and runs the Port Clyde Fisherman's Cooperative, says the federal action will have a major impact on the industry. He spoke with Maine Things Considered host Nora Flaherty.
NF: Gerry, What kinds of changes are you expecting to see here?
GC: They're going to be paying more for bait, so that's less money to the household that's the fisherman, and then that's less money for the communities. I've crunched the numbers. I don't know how we do not run out of bait at certain times of the year where fishermen will be sitting on the dock and not fishing because there's no bait available.
So how close to the bone are these guys, what kind of effect is this going to have on people's ability to make a living?
I think it's going to be difficult. I think it's going to be a really difficult year coming up. I really don't know until you get into it. Every time I think there's going to be something severe, it doesn't. Every time I think something isn't going to be severe, it ends up being severe, but until we really dive into this here, I don't know, because lobsters are a creature that it's a natural resource, you know, if the shed comes early, it comes as early as June, then we're really going to be trouble. If the pogies don't show back up in the Gulf of Maine like they have in the last couple, that even puts us even further into trouble. There's a lot of variables in this scenario, so I really won't know the effect until until we get into it next year.
This decision has some fishermen in Maine talking about leaving the business. Do you know anyone who's getting out?
I don't know anybody that's getting out. I do think that there are a lot of nervous fishermen out there, and they should be. It's a major caught in our bait.
You are preparing for this change in a different way. Tell me about that.
So, I decided to build a freezer. One thing is that we've been getting bait outside the states, from New Jersey, all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, where they catch menhaden, and they freeze it, and then load it on 16-wheelers, and then you can have it delivered here in Maine.
The problem is we don't have enough infrastructure freezer infrastructure. I think Maine has done several studies, not just for the bait side of it, but just Maine as a whole, it's freezer infrastructure that we don't have enough freezer infrastructure for the state of Maine to abide for blueberries and extra and extra. So I decided that I would put up a freezer in Warren, Maine just closed on the property last week, got a building permit this week, and hopefully we'll be breaking ground in the next day or two.
Finally NOAA has made these changes because they want to protect herring long-term so they don't become depleted. Given the importance of herring to your industry, do you not support every effort to protect the bait source going forward?
I want to protect the bait source. I'm not a biologist and I'm not a scientist. They're telling me, you know, and I have to go by the best science. If they're telling me the stock is in trouble, then I have to adjust my business to make sure that we don't jeopardize that fishery.
That fishery is not just important to the Maine lobstermen, it's important to a lot of different fisheries, you know the ground fisheries, and it's so important to the ecosystem, I mean it's the main line for the forage fish. So the number one thing that we need to do is protect herring, and I'll have to adjust my business accordingly around that.
Ed note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.