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Shortage in Fish Used as Bait Could Impact Maine's Lobster Industry

Could a tiny fish be the reason your lobster roll costs just a little bit more?

New quotas on herring are forcing Maine lobstermen to look at new types of bait to catch the crustaceans instead of traditional Atlantic herring.

Ian Mayo, operations manager for Maine Fisheries, a company that deals herring, says the cuts are "drastic" and will reduce his herring haul by "75 percent."

The quotas stem from new federal and regional regulations to protect a fish that has a population problem. The changes, crafted by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and New England Fishery Management Council, were implemented after a sharp decline in Atlantic herring was recorded.

Dr. James Sulikowski, a marine scientist the University of New England who advises the NEFMC, says a herring collapse could disrupt an entire New England ocean ecosystem because the fish feeds so many other predators.

"We have to protect the adults that are spawning," he said.

Suliklowski believes the herring will return, but first, scientists need to figure out why they're disappearing, since the cause is not overfishing.

"There's lots of different factors, from environmental change to predation," he explained.

While scientists figure that out, herring costs are going up, leaving lobstermen with a tough choice. They can buy the same fish as they have for years, but at a higher cost, or they can switch their bait.

There is, luckily, another small fish called the menhaden that has been appearing more frequently in Maine waters.

Herring fishermen say they could catch those instead, but they won't fetch as high a price as herring.

"This is our career, and now it's harder to make a livelihood out of it," Mayo said.

Instead, Mayo and others who deal in herring on Portland's waterfront will have to wait.

Sulikowski says experts will reassess the herring fishery in 2020 to see if the current plan still makes sense. He expects that with proper protection from regulators, fishermen will eventually be able to land higher amounts of herring again.

Mayo says that won't solve the problem this summer, and it could linger into the next season, since large amounts of bait are often caught and frozen for the next year.

That means the bait market might be a little tight, and some lobstermen may decide consumers will have to help them pay their bills by raising prices.

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