Lobster fishermen expressed concern last weekend about the availability of herring bait for the coming season, given ongoing discussions about the allowable catch limits.

Their concerns were voiced during the annual Maine Lobstermen’s Association meeting at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum held last weekend at the Samoset Resort in Rockport. The fishermen’s concerns were also echoed by MLA Executive Director Patrice McCarron, who told the gathering that her group had been advocating for the lobster industry during federal and interstate fishery management meetings to determine the level of herring catch over the next three years.

Herring landings for the fishing years 2010 through 2012 were cut by the New England Fishery Management Council by nearly 40 percent.

“We went to council meetings and said this is going to kill the lobster industry,” McCarron told fishermen.

The catch level, set by the NEFMC in November, was based on the advice of its Scientific and Statistical Committee. The SSC based its advice on the lack of certainty about how abundant the herring stock really is, partly due to lack of information about inshore stocks, which are heavily fished.

The NEFMC’s latest proposed management action acknowledges that better data collection is needed.

As a result of the uncertainty inherent in the decision, said McCarron, the MLA has backed requests by Maine’s congressional delegation for research money.

“We need to know how many fish are out there,” she said. “We need money from the federal government to assess this resource so we know, are we taking too little, are we taking too much, are we taking the right amount. We don’t want to knock the herring resource down so that our kids and grandchildren have no fish – bad. But if there are a lot more fish out there and we’re not getting to utilize them as bait – bad. The problem is we don’t have the data and it’s like people chasing their tails.”

Data collection needs to be accomplished in time for the next herring assessment, in 2011, McCarron said.

“You go out, you measure them,” she said. “It’s not rocket science.”

Fishermen said that, with the impending closure of Stinson Seafood in Prospect Harbor, they were concerned about losing it as a bait supplier. Although the plant primarily processes herring to make canned sardine and herring products, a significant amount of fish goes out “the back door,” as one man said, as bait.

“Hundreds of fishermen go in there in their pickup trucks, way before daylight, to pick up their bait, and that’s all going to stop next month,” said another man.

McCarron said the hope is that the herring that has been going to Stinson will go to the bait market instead.

“We might see that fish; rather than going through the plant and coming to you, it might go through the bait supply,” she said. “We really have to watch that and get those fish into the lobster fishery and not into sardine plants in Canada.”

McCarron said herring is only one of quite a few longstanding and emerging issues with which the lobster industry is grappling. Lobster fishermen continue to deal with the changeover in groundline, and they face challenges to their use of vertical endlines; both types of line are considered threats to whales. From 1997 to 2007, the National Marine Fisheries Service recorded five incidents of right and humpback whales entangled in gear that was owned by Maine fishermen.

“It really ups the pressure on us in the whale management arena because our gear has been taken off whales at this point,” said McCarron. “We’re going to take a hit, but we’ll hopefully manage it in a way that whales are protected and we’ve minimized the economic impact on our industry.”

Data on whale entanglement is not yet available for 2008 and 2009.

Emerging environmental issues, McCarron said, include climate change and ocean acidification. And fishermen will want to keep an eye on developments in offshore wind energy, she said.

“The way you do business will change,” she said. “You will be sharing the ocean with other uses, and we collectively as an industry have got to wrap our heads around what that means. And it’s not, ‘Well, I don’t care. The windmill’s not going where I fish.’ It’s ‘What does the lobster industry need to do about this issue? How do we engage in it?’ The train has left the station, people, and it is going to happen.”

An essential part of staying on top of the issues, she said, will be communication between fishermen themselves. To that end, she said, the MLA has been able to meet some of the strategic goals the organization developed last year, which included hiring more staffers to create better communication. A year ago, McCarron was the MLA’s only staffer. Since then, the association has acquired four new staffers, including a lawyer, two people to focus on newsletter and Web site development, and, in an effort to better assess an industry response to whale management, an outreach specialist who plans to visit each fishing harbor over the coming year to collect information on fishing practices.

This month, the MLA is also hosting lobster fishermen from Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Ireland, Western Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand. The MLA is taking the group on the road to visit with Maine lobstermen along the coast and exchange ideas on issues of all shapes and sizes.

The idea for the visits came about, McCarron said, during the past year’s discussions about effort reduction and tiered licensing, which proved divisive.

“Some people thought we needed to do it or we’re going to die; some people thought we didn’t need to do it or we’re going to die,” she said. “What I found disturbing was that we were polarized, we were divisive. We need to be talking, period. We’re doing a huge disservice to our industry by not having conversations.”

In other business, the gathering gave Pat White a standing ovation for his years of service on the MLA’s board of directors.

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