The state approved the use of blackbelly rosefish as bait for lobster traps effective next year. This is expected to offset declines in other bait lobstermen use. Credit: Courtesy of Cooke Aquaculture

The state for the first time has approved using fish raised off the coast of Uruguay as lobster bait to help offset a bait shortage that could increase lobster prices.

Cook e Aquaculture USA of Machiasport announced the Maine Department of Marine Resources’ decision on Wednesday, saying it could help lobstermen weather a drop in the population of their primary bait source, herring, off the Maine coast. The New England Fishery Management Council in June cut the amount of herring fishermen can catch off the New England coast in 2020 and 2021.

The decision will allow Cooke to sell whole blackbelly rosefish for use as bait to lobstermen dealing with the herring decline. It could also open a lucrative line of trade for Cooke, which employs more than 200 in Maine at its Atlantic salmon marine farms, freshwater hatcheries and processing plant in Machiasport.

The lobster industry has enjoyed large hauls in recent years, but it is dependent on bait to lure lobster into traps. A spike in bait prices could hit consumers in restaurants and fish markets, which have already seen increases in lobster costs over the past few years.

Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

Cuts in the herring catch quota that are already in effect this year will mean the total haul for 2019 will be less than a fifth of the 2014 harvest, which was more than 200 million pounds.

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, called the new bait fish from Cooke “a very promising solution to a serious issue.”

“We’re very pleased by the collaborative approach Cooke and the state took to help deal with the challenges that the lobster fishery has been facing related to securing bait,” McCarron said in a statement.

Headquartered in New Brunswick, Cooke has nearly 3,800 employees in the United States.

The company will harvest the rosefish from South Atlantic waters off Uruguay, freezing them at sea as whole fish within hours to maximize quality and sell them to Maine lobstermen, among others.

The company described the species as plentiful, and said it comes from the same scientific classification as the familiar Atlantic redfish, which lobstermen already often use for bait.

The Department of Marine Resources approved the rosefish for use as bait on June 28, with some conditions attached to the approval. Cooke must keep the harvested fish frozen and document all movements of the fish on their way to market to prevent pathogens and predators from invading the catch, said Jeff Nichols, the department’s spokesman.

Information on the tons of rosefish Cooke expects to harvest or its initial price offering was not available Wednesday.

Maine lobstermen have been looking into a number of options to compensate for the herring shortage, including freshwater carp from the Midwest, pig hides and engineer-manufactured baits.

The rosefish is the 48th species that can now be used to harvest lobster and crabs, according to the Department of Marine Resources. Other species allowed include multiple types of herring, Atlantic cod, croaker, halibut, mullet, skate, shad and tuna.

Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.

Watch: The Maine lobster industry

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