ROCKLAND — Sardine packers, bait dealers and fishermen all are wondering one thing this summer: Where are the herring?
Landings of herring have slumped dramatically, forcing sardine packers to slow their production lines and sending lobster fishermen scrambling for bait. The reason for the decline can’t be pinpointed, at this point, but all in the industry are worried.
“It’s not a very good summer for herring,” Jeff Kaelin of the Maine Sardine Council said Thursday. “Fish are very, very scarce and nobody really knows why or what it means. We’re having a real hard time getting fish for the canneries.”
The herring fishery is overseen by the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission. The resource is divided into three zones stretching from New Brunswick to North Carolina.
The Gulf of Maine zone runs from Cape Cod to Canada. A second zone is from Cape Cod south, and the third is the Georges Bank. As much as 80 percent of the entire three-zone catch is taken from the Gulf of Maine, according to Fran Kulle, president of Lubec Packing Co. and chairman of the Maine Sardine Council. Kulle said the annual catch from the Gulf of Maine is about 90,000 metric tons.
“We’ve been saying for years that that’s way too much,” Kulle said. “Is the fishery in a mess? Yes. Has it been neglected? Yes. Can they save it? I don’t know, it may be too late.”
David Stevenson of the Maine Department of Marine Resources said scientists have no explanation for the decline in the herring catch but to try to lay the blame on overfishing would be incorrect. Stevenson insisted that DMR data show that the fishery is healthy and that adequate stocks of herring should be swimming somewhere in the Gulf of Maine.
“The assessments don’t indicate that we’ve got an overexploited resource yet,” Stevenson said. “But it’s been horrible this summer. The whole industry is kind of in a panic right now.”
Stevenson and Kaelin said the DMR and sardine industry are both working with the ASMFC to develop a herring management plan. Other than the one-time quotas of the 1970s, when stocks were in bad shape, there has never been a management plan for herring.
Stevenson speculated that the plan could be designed to control access to the fishery as well as curtail the harvest of spawning herring. He said the plan also would likely cap the harvest at the present level of 90,000 metric tons.
“Some people think that’s too high; we think it’s a good cap,” Kaelin said.
At the Rockland Fish Pier, a nervous Capt. Dan Fill of the Western Sea expressed hope that the fishery can right itself before the season ends this fall. Rockland is the coast’s lobster bait headquarters during the summer and herring fishermen like Fill have found it hard to meet demands.
“Everyone is complaining because they can’t get bait,” Fill said. “I supply bait dealers from Cape Cod to Eastport and they’re hurting.”
The Western Sea catches herring by purse seine, a type of net that encircles schools of fish near the surface. Fill said that last summer at this time he would steam into port with 250,000 pounds of herring. The average catch of the Western Sea this year is less than one-third that amount, he said.
“This is supposed to be the best part of the season, but we’re just not finding fish,” Fill said. “I’ve been at this 16 years and I’ve never seen it this bad. There’s been a great reduction. Right now we’re supposed to be peaking, and instead we’re crying. It’s wicked. My crews are worried. If it keeps up like this, we’re all in trouble.”
Even at Lubec Packing in Lubec, where the primary stock is obtained from weir-caught herring from Canada, the numbers are down. Plant manager Peter Boyce said Thursday that he lost two days of production last week and another this week because of a lack of fish.
“We’ve lost a little time,” Boyce said. “Right now it’s a little worrisome, but there have been other years like this.”
Boyce said the industry is fortunate that in times like these, trade policy allows access to Canadian fish. His firm has been shipping Canadian herring to Rockland to meet the demand for lobster bait.
“A lot of Canadian fish have gone to the lobster bait market and it’s important that both sides of the border have access to the other side,” Boyce said. “You can’t be in the herring business and not have access to both sides of the border.”