Maine fishermen are fighting to harvest more pogies, used as lobster bait

·6 min read

Sep. 14—Maine fishermen say they need a bigger piece of the East Coast menhaden fishery because the fish have become the primary source of lobster bait.

More than 75 people attended a hearing in Augusta on Tuesday night about proposed changes to state quotas for the fish, also known as pogies.

Attendees at the meeting said they wanted a larger quota because the fish have become plentiful in Maine over recent years. The menhaden population rises and falls in roughly 20-year cycles, and landings data show the number of fish has been on an upswing since 2016. Menhaden are often seen breaking the surface as they flip and jostle in thick schools, even close to shore.

Maine fishermen are currently allotted 0.52 percent of the total catch allowed across all Atlantic states. About 78 percent of the catch goes to Virginia, home to the Eastern seaboard's only plant for producing fish oil from menhaden. The next-highest allocation goes to New Jersey, at 10 percent.

The Virginia plant makes fish oil used in animal feed, as well as omega-3 supplements for human consumption, and is operated by Omega Protein, a subsidiary of Cooke Aquaculture of New Brunswick, Canada. Cooke also owns salmon aquaculture farms, including in Maine. Omega Protein uses an average of 309 million pounds of menhaden per year, almost three times the amount that is used for bait.

In Maine, the fish have been widely used as bait in lobster traps, replacing herring after that fishery collapsed and catches were drastically limited.

"The New England lobster fishery relies solely on menhaden now, basically," said lobster fisherman Dustin Delano, of Friendship. "Herring's gone. We need to be able to catch everything we can. We need as much quota as we can get. You've got 15 or 16 states that are fighting for crumbs here while two states are taking it all."

COMPLEX QUOTAS

The menhaden fishery is managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which sets quotas for each state. It is a complicated system, with states able to swap portions of their quotas, and different phases of the fishery that allow the quotas to be exceeded in different ways. Once the official quota is reached, the ASMFC allows another 1 percent of the total allowable catch to be harvested in an "episodic event" phase, designed for when the fish move to an area. Once that is exhausted, the state moves into a "small-scale" phase of the fishing season with no overall quota but a catch limited to 6,000 pounds per day per boat.

So even if the state quota is met, Maine fishermen have been able to continue to catch the fish on a limited basis throughout the season. More and more menhaden have been caught in Maine in the small-scale phase during this period of abundance.

While Maine has been allocated an average of 2.2 million pounds annually, the state's fishermen have been landing more than 20 million pounds in recent years.

However, the Department of Marine Resources shut down the Maine commercial fishery completely on Aug. 28 because the total allowable catch for the Atlantic states had been surpassed for the season. Recreational menhaden license holders may still catch 1,050 pounds a day.

Department spokesperson Megan Ware explained that during the small-scale phase Maine fishermen had landed twice what they did last year, though final figures are not yet available.

"If all of the other states are doing the same thing, there's a pretty good chance that we've also exceeded the (total allowable catch) in 2022," she said. "That's why we closed the directed commercial fishery."

The department anticipated there would be more fishing this year, because new legislation required menhaden license holders to land 25,000 pounds of the fish in order to renew their licenses, if they hadn't done so in any of the past three years.

While the department can set opening and closing dates for the different phases of the season and make other minor rule adjustments, the DMR is limited in what it can do with such a small quota allotment.

The ASMFC proposed an addendum to its fishery management plan, which was the subject of the hearing. The commission laid out a wide array of options for changing the quota allocation among the states, the amount allowed to be caught in episodic phases, and limits and gear changes for the small-scale phase. Several of the allocation options would result in a larger quota for Maine.

Some commenters were critical of what they saw as overly complicated rules and convoluted options.

A fisherman from Harpswell said, "In my head I came up with my own 'draft addendum': Split the pie evenly. All the states get the same amount, and then let Virginia fight for its quota."

Nearly all the attendees indicated they'd like a higher quota for Maine. But one who opposed it, George Bamford, of Addison, said after the meeting that he wanted to maintain the status quo because he was worried that even with a higher quota Maine might ultimately be left with fewer menhaden for harvesting, if changes were made in the small-scale fishery phase.

PURSE SEINE BAN OPPOSED

There was also unanimous opposition to the addendum's proposed ban on purse seines — large nets that can encircle a school of fish — in the small-scale fishery phase. James West, of Sorrento, said after the meeting that the alternative, gill nets, kill fish and that other species caught as bycatch would not be able to be released alive, as with purse seines.

Several attendees expressed frustration that the small-scale fishery was shut down.

"We've been shut down four good weeks," said Doug McLennan, a lobsterman from South Thomaston. "Last year I fished to the end of October. I've lost two months pay, nothing, no money. The only fishery in the state making any money was shut down. This place is a ghost town, nobody's catching any lobsters. We're on pins and needles."

Michael Myers of Tenants Harbor made a plea for the department to give lobstermen the ability to fish for their own bait again.

"I am a lobsterman, I've been a lobsterman since I was a kid," he said. "I depend on this fishery. This is how I feed my family; I get my bait to put on my traps, it's how I make my living. When you start taking away the bait, you start cutting us down even more. You're just tightening the noose."

Ware, the DMR spokesperson, acknowledged that Maine lobstermen are facing a lot of pressures now, with low dock prices for their catch, and the high costs of fuel and bait. But she urged optimism about the menhaden issue.

"I think this is an opportunity for Maine to secure some more quota for menhaden, so there's actually a potential for some bright spots here," she said.

The commission is accepting comments on the draft addendum through Sept. 30, and will meet in November to review the input and consider final changes to the plan.