The deck of the Deja Vu II is awash in pogies while crew member Corey Doughty wrestles a barrel in position in Portland on Monday, June 14, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The number of Maine fishermen who can catch menhaden — more commonly called pogies in Maine — could soon be limited to only those who have historically gone after the increasingly important baitfish.

The state Department of Marine Resources submitted a proposal to the state legislature that would, starting in 2023, only allow fishermen to obtain commercial menhaden licenses if they’ve held the license in one of the last six years and caught at least 25,000 pounds of pogies during one of those years.

The bill, which was heard by a legislative committee earlier this week, has sparked a debate over who should be allowed to catch the small, oily fish.

Menhaden are schooling fish that can be found up and down the east coast. Maine lobstermen have started to rely on them as bait in the last few years as herring quotas have been cut and some have invested in expensive gear to fish for them themselves.

But pogies have quotas too, and there are concerns about too many fishermen jumping into the fishery.

“While this is an overused analogy, if you have a fixed pie and more people keep taking a slice, the pieces of the pie gets smaller and smaller and smaller until there isn’t enough for anyone,” said Deirdre Gilbert, the director of marine policy at the DMR, during a public hearing on the bill Tuesday.

Pogies are managed by a commission made up of eastern seaboard states. Maine currently receives .52 percent of the overall quota, which in 2021 was about 2.1 million pounds. States can apply to catch 1 percent more of the overall quota if there is still a large number of fish in their waters.

But Maine has fished through its quota and the extra allotment quickly. In 2021, the state quota was met after only six fishing days, despite the regulators trying to spread the season out by decreasing the amount of pogies a fisherman could land per week from 160,000 pounds to 23,800 pounds. The extra allotment was then met after just two fishing days.  

The fishery has turned into a “derby,” said Gilbert, causing it to land all of its quota before prime lobster season when the bait is needed.

The goal of the legislation is to prevent more fishermen from joining the fishery. The 25,000 pound threshold would keep the fishery at about 255 license holders, which is roughly equivalent to the number of active license holders last year.

“This is really the maximum amount of effort we feel this fishery can support,” Gilbert said.

Several other fisheries, including lobster, scallops and elvers, also limit the number of harvesters.

About 80 people submitted testimony on the bill, the overwhelming majority which were against it. Limiting the number of licenses came off as unfair to many fishermen, especially those Down East who have only just started to see pogies in their waters in the last three or so years.

“The people here have never really had a chance to meet the requirements that are being proposed,” said Jacob Knowles, a Gouldsboro lobsterman.

Some worried that the proposal could create a divide between different parts of the state.

“Fishermen east off the midcoast have only recently started diversifying into this industry,” said Chris Hodgkins, a Frenchboro fisherman. “To cap the licenses and only allow the western part of the state to have the majority of the licenses would be wrong.”

There were also concerns about the longevity of the proposed system, which has no sunset clause. When the people that do fit the eligibility requirements eventually retire, the younger generation will never have had the opportunity to learn how to fish for pogies according to the bill, some argued.

“If this bill passes, we are putting an end to the menhaden fishing industry because after all the license holders stop fishing, there will be no one to take their place,” said Roy Whalen, a South Gouldsboro lobsterman.

Some were in favor of doing some sort of limit on access to the fishery, but felt that using the 25,000 pound threshold in past years without prior notice was not the way to do it.

Jim Wotton, a Friendship fisherman, supported some elements of the proposal, but, for him, the real issue is getting a larger quota for Maine from interstate regulators so everyone can get the bait they need.

“Until we can get more quota, we’re going to have that problem,” he said.