The early closure of the commercial menhaden fishery set for this weekend is expected to push bait prices higher as stores of the schooling fish that have become a prized lobster bait dwindle in the coming weeks.
State fishery regulators will close the menhaden season on Sunday as landings for the increasingly popular bait fish saw a massive jump. The Maine Department of Marine Resources decided to shut down fishing for fear that the state would go over its catch limit.
Both lobstermen and people in the bait industry expect that despite landings hitting a record high in Maine, there will likely still be a bait crunch. Pogies, as menhaden are often called in Maine, are usually open to fishing through the fall.
It’s the earliest that Jason Lord, a lobsterman and pogie fisherman out of New Harbor, can remember the season ending.
“This closure of our fishery is going to hurt,” he said. “You’ll watch the price of bait skyrocket.”
Pogies have a complicated quota system that includes allocations to states across the east coast. Maine gets just 0.52 percent of the coastwide quota, but in reality catches much more than that under other quota provisions.
States can ask for extra quota if they can prove there are high numbers of pogies in their waters, as well as get quota transfers from other states. Once those are used up, fishermen then enter a phase in the fishery that’s known as the “small-scale” fishery. During that phase, fishermen can catch up to as much as 6,000 pounds of pogies per day a few days a week.
Maine has used this provision more than any other state, netting a previous record high of 13.6 million in 2020. But the catch is even higher this year, raising concerns about the potential to go over the coastwide catch limit.
Under the first 17 days in the 2022 small-scale fishery phase, Maine fishermen caught 170 percent more pounds of pogies than in 2021 and 250 percent more than in 2020. As of Tuesday, 15.8 million pounds have been landed in Maine under the small-scale fishery provision, the highest ever.
DMR fears that if it allowed fishing to continue, it could hurt Maine just as the commission that doles out pogie allocations is considering giving the state a larger quota.
“Significant increases in landings under the small-scale fishery and subsequent exceedance of the [total allowable catch] may undermine these conversations,” the DMR wrote in the closure notice to fishermen.
In the past, Lord has fished using the small-scale fishery provision into October and November. The bait he catches is mostly for in-house use at his wharf. He usually doesn’t stockpile because of the small-scale daily pound limit.
Pogies have become one of the top baits in Maine’s lobster industry with the downturn of the herring population. Many have started fishing pogies for themselves, cutting down on their costs with rising fuel prices.
But they often use them relatively soon after they’re caught, so bait dealers don’t expect there to be a deep reserve once the fishery closes.
Jeanne Fuller, the CEO at Harbor Bait in Boothbay Harbor, thinks her existing stores won’t make it through the end of the fall, likely sending fishermen in search of other bait, likely at higher prices.
“They’re getting a deal on the front end and when it comes to a time when [pogies aren’t] there, I’m going to have a lot of people coming in and I won’t be able to give it to them,” she said.
DMR officials had worried about a substantial increase in catch earlier this year, when a limit on the number of pogie licenses went through in an attempt to prevent fishermen from speedily using up and exceeding the quotas.
The new rules were first proposed to only allow fishermen who had caught 25,000 pounds of pogies in past seasons to have a license moving forward. But fishermen protested the limit and were granted another chance to hit the 25,000 pound threshold in 2022.
That “in or out” mentality likely pushed people to catch more fish than they would have otherwise to guarantee themselves a future license.
“Most guys are going to catch it,” said James West, a fisherman in Sorrento. “Nobody wants to be forced out.”