Corey Doughty reaches for a set of hooks for hoisting a barrel of pogies off the deck of the Deja Vu II at CBS Lobster and Bait on Union Wharf in Portland on Monday June 14, 2021. Maine fishermen may soon be allowed to catch more of the important lobster bait fish. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

While more menhaden are swimming through Maine waters in recent years, the state’s quotas for the important bait fish haven’t kept pace with the growing influx.

But that could soon change as the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission, an interstate regulatory body that oversees several species along the eastern seaboard, is considering new provisions that could increase catch quotas in Maine.

Menhaden, commonly known as pogies, have become a top lobster bait as herring populations have declined.

Right now, Maine has 0.52 percent of the overall quota for the east coast, just slightly above the 0.5 percent minimum quota that is available to every state in the region. But that doesn’t line up with the number of menhaden, often called pogies, that have been in the Gulf of Maine in recent years.

The proposal, which was released this week, includes several different allocation options and variations that would open up more fishing in Maine. Minimum allocations could be done on a tiered scale based on harvests going back to 2009. The commission could also shift the time frame that allocations are based upon to more recent years, which would give Maine a boost because of its increased landings.

Under the latter option, Maine’s baseline allocation would go from 0.5 percent to almost 5 percent, allowing fishermen to add thousands of pounds of pogies to their haul without jumping through hoops needed to get more quota.

These changes aim to bridge the gap between present allocations and the reality of what fishermen are seeing along the coast.

In the meantime, Maine has begun to regularly use existing provisions designed to be used sparingly to increase the catch. For instance, a state can apply for quota transfers from other states. It can also request an additional 1 percent of quota if the catch has been maxed out and the state can prove there are still lots of pogies around.

These provisions have basically become a second quota for Maine, which in reality caught about 6.3 percent of the east coast landings in 2020.

Maine fishermen have also used another provision more than any other state. Fishermen can keep pogies caught while actively fishing for something else or if it’s done on a small scale.

In 2020, Maine landed 13.6 million pounds through that loophole, a little more than half of the state’s total landings for that year. Only two other states caught pogies under this provision in 2020 and combined for a little more than 300,000 pounds.

Earlier this year, Maine limited the number of people who can have a pogie license after its quota was used up in just six fishing days in 2021.  

But fishermen felt it was the wrong solution to the problem. When the state Department of Marine Resources proposed license limits, several fishermen said that instead of reducing the number of people who can eat Maine’s small sliver of pie, officials should just fight for a larger piece.

Many lobstermen have taken up fishing for pogies to supply themselves with more bait as herring prices go up.

“For a state whose economy depends so heavily on the lobster fishery, and with all of the other environmental and political issues lobstermen are already struggling with, it seems silly to me that the state would rather put more pressure on the local lobster industry instead of pushing for a larger quota at the federal level,” Emily Cunningham, a sternman from Swan’s Island, testified in February.

The commission is expected to decide on the changes later this fall.