Lobsterman Gerry Cushman said April 9 that the most important issue lobstermen are facing is the danger presented by the use of alternative bait due to shortages in herring.

Recently the New England Fishery Management Council cut allowable herring landings for the fishing years 2010 through 2012 by nearly 40 percent.

“We could be putting bait on that could be killing groundfish,” Cushman said. He said some freshwater and Pacific marine species used for bait carry pathogens that could be harmful to Gulf of Maine species. Fish waste, leather and other non-fish products have also been used as alternatives to herring.

The catch level for herring, set by the New England Fishery Management Council in November, was based on the advice of its Scientific and Statistical Committee. The committee 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 New England Fishery Management Council’s latest proposed management action acknowledged that better data collection is needed, and the Maine Department of Marine Resources has called for new assessments of the herring fishery.

With the impending closure of Stinson Seafood in Prospect Harbor, lobstermen have expressed concerns about losing an important bait source. Although the plant primarily processed herring to make canned sardine and herring products, a significant amount of fish ended up as bait.

Cushman, who represents the Zone D Lobster Council on the statewide Lobster Advisory Council, brought his concerns to the attention of fellow lobstermen at the April 7 Zone D meeting at the Department of Marine Resources office in Rockland.

The department has been polling Maine’s seven lobster zone councils to seek consensus on calling for lobstermen to cut back on fishing days in order to conserve bait, but the Zone D council was not in support of that plan. Members said taking a day off would only mean fishing harder on the remaining work days.

At that same meeting, Department of Marine Resources lobster biologist Carl Wilson presented a report on a trap density study conducted in Tenants Harbor last summer. Wilson said the timing of the study, which began just as lobsters were shedding their shells and moving offshore, led to insufficient data on whether fewer lobster traps would lead to higher or lower yields.

“Just when you think you know something, you don’t,” Wilson said, adding that the study still yielded valuable information about how and where lobstermen set their traps.

The next Zone D Lobster Council meeting will be announced after a meeting date is set for the statewide Lobster Advisory Council.

The Herald Gazette Reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by e-mail at sauciello@villagesoup.com.