On a local radio station recently a commentator stated that herring stocks are overfished. Overfishing has led to the current shortage of herring for lobstermen’s use as bait, he continued.

His statement was incorrect.

Among the many fish species that call the Gulf of Maine home, Atlantic herring are one species that is doing quite well, thank you very much. In the opaque language of fisheries regulators, “Atlantic herring stocks are not overfished and overfishing is not occurring.” 

So why has herring availability become such an issue for lobstermen this summer? The migratory fish is the preferred bait for many Maine lobstermen and when there’s no herring available, lobstermen get a little testy. 

The problem lies not with the fish, who right now are congregating in spawning schools along the coast. The problem lies with the regulatory need to control what happens at sea, a desire that often conflicts with what is actually happening at sea.

Because herring migrate, they are considered an interstate fish species. Harvest of fish that move along the Eastern Seaboard is managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a remarkably collegial regulatory body created in 1942 whose aim is to manage and conserve shared fish species. The amount of herring that can be harvested each year is set by the commission on a three-year basis. That amount, in turn, is determined by a stock assessment, which also takes place every three years. The latest stock assessment was released in 2015; currently herring fishermen are operating under the commission’s 2016-2018 quota. 

The annual catch limit, or quota, for herring is 231 million pounds, a 2.6% decrease from the 2013-2015 quota. The commission established four management areas at sea in recognition that herring are migratory and that they are found along the coast and offshore at different times of the year. The two management areas important to Maine lobstermen are Area 3 (Georges Bank) and Area 1A (inshore Gulf of Maine).

And now it gets tricky. Each one of the four management areas gets its own share of the herring quota. Area 1A gets 66.79 million pounds this year; Area 3 gets 90.16 million pounds. To fine-tune the system even further, herring fishing is divided into three time periods: January 1 to May 31, June 1 to September 30, and October 1 to December 31. Since there’s pretty much no herring along the coast in winter, the 1A fishery really kicks off on June 1. So the commission divided the Area 1A quota into two. 72.8% of the quota can be caught between June and September; 27.2% can be caught between October 1 and the end of the year.

 


Typically the Georges Bank fishery supplies herring for lobstermen in the late spring and early summer months. Large boats, like the F/V Starlight in Rockland, steam to Georges Bank and land thousands of pounds of herring from one trip. This year, however, that scenario changed. The herring didn’t show up. Herring fishermen reported finding some schools but very deep in the water and intermixed with haddock schools. So landings from Area 3 were light. 

Those big boats moved over to Area 1A. Here another bit of bureaucratic fine-tuning comes into play. From June to the end of September, only vessels rigged for seining, rather than trawling, for herring can fish in Area 1A. Seiners tend to be smaller boats, which results in smaller amounts of the quota being landed throughout that period. To access the fishery in 1A, the larger midwater trawlers changed their gear from trawl nets to seine nets. And they went fishing. 

The addition of these boats meant that the entire quota allocated for Area 1A from June to September 30 could be landed, and landed quickly, by mid-July. So  Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher promulgated emergency rules on June 22, July 2 and July 9 to slow down herring landings in an effort to make the quota last (states that are members of the commission have the right to institute measures that are more restrictive than those of the commission, but not less so). Herring vessels can land their catch only on two consecutive days each week and can land just 600,000 pounds at a time. A large herring vessel is allowed to offload its catch to a carrier vessel (a smaller boat that brings the herring to shore while the large vessel continues to fish) just once a week. 

After all, the lobstering season in Maine picks up speed in August and hits full stride in September and October. If the majority of herring was landed in early summer, the situation could be catastrophic for Maine lobstermen in the fall. 

So that’s why there’s a herring shortage in Maine. The fish are out there. The lobstermen want them. But the rules dictate how much can be landed and when. It’s important to remember that marine environments are constantly in flux. The effect of a warming Gulf of Maine, cool spring and early summer temperatures, decreased rainfall, or some variation in the salinity of the water may have altered the behavior of herring schools. The rules, however, do not alter. Fisheries regulations are a bit like trying to put a grid on pudding. It is a distinctly imperfect science.