Maine Fishermen Worry That New Regulations on Herring Will Hurt Small Businesses, Lobstermen

A day after fishing regulators adopted strict new measures to prevent herring stocks from collapsing, some New England fishermen say they fear for their own survival.

Herring are a crucial forage fish for whales, seabirds and other predators. But they’re also the primary bait fish for lobstermen around New England. And, in the face of bleak stock assessments, there’s disagreement about the best way forward for the fish and fishermen.

At the New England Fish Company on Portland’s waterfront, Ryan Raber and his sister, Susanna, say they will likely have to lay off some crew and staff to keep their second generation bait business going. They have 25 employees. Herring and mackerel are the primary species the company targets for bait, but if the rules adopted by the New England Fishery Management Council are approved, the Rabers and others won’t be able to catch herring the way they used to or catch as much.

“Last year we had a quota of about 100,000 metric tons,” says Ryan Raber. “This year industry worked with NOAA to reduce it to about half that to 55,000 tons. Next year’s quota will be down to around 15-thousand tons.”

And it’s not just the quota that has them worried. Regulators have also approved a 12-mile buffer zone for mid-water trawlers. That means no fishing for herring close to shore from Maine to New York.

“Vessels that operate midwater trawlers are going to lose about 75 percent of their historic fishing grounds because of a new buffer that we feel has no scientific basis or justification,” Ryan Raber says. “We’ll probably wind up challenging it in court.”

The Rabers they aren’t the only ones who are figuring out their next steps.

“I predict we will see acute bait shortages, likely have days where lobstermen aren’t able to fish because they won’t have bait, and when we do have bait, I anticipate that we will be on some sort of rations to get through,” says Patrice McCarron, the executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

Photo: Willis Ryder Arnold / Maine Public