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Closure of popular bait fish adds to already challenging lobster fishing season

For bait dealers and lobstermen, the season's closure signifies growing pains.

MAINE, USA — The Maine Department of Marine Resources announced in a news release Tuesday that the menhaden commercial fishery would end at 11:59 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 28. 

The department said in the release that commercial menhaden harvesters should have all their trip reports for the harvest week of Aug. 22 through Aug. 26 submitted before 11:59 p.m. Sunday.

Harvesters who hold a noncommercial menhaden license will not be affected by this closure and can continue to harvest 1,050 pounds "per harvester and per vessel each day," the release said.

Atlantic menhaden, also known as pogy, have been a great alternative as bait for lobstermen to use, according to NOAA.

According to the release, the following sums up Maine's 2022 menhaden season:

"It was anticipated that an increase in effort would occur within Maine's menhaden fishery for the 2022 season due to recent legislative action to develop a limited entry license for 2023 with a landing requirement of 25,000 pounds that, if not already met, could be harvested during this 2022 season.

"Comparing the first 17 days of harvest under the small-scale fishery across years, Maine has landed 170% more pounds of menhaden in 2022 than in 2021, and 250% more pounds in 2022 than in 2020. To date, we have landed 15.8 million pounds under the small-scale fishery."

For bait dealers and lobstermen, the season's closure signifies growing pains.

"The resource comes first. That's the bottom line," Gerry Cushman said.

Cushman is a fisherman and bait dealer out of Port Clyde, Maine. He said the early closure makes sense as the species showed up this year earlier than in other seasons.

"Menhaden has a tradition of being here and then being gone. ... We're chartering new waters. I don't blame [the Department of Marine Resources] for shutting it down now," Cushman said.

The bait dealer said menhaden disappeared in the 1990s and reappeared just in time when herring were being fished out.

"The herring quota got caught the same year. Menhaden showed up, and it was like a gift. The story would be completely different if menhaden didn't show up in Maine. ... We would have been in big, big trouble," Cushman said.

Jim Wotton, who works with Cushman as a bait dealer at George's River Bait Company, said he's fished menhaden his entire life.

"Probably, 60, 70, or 80 percent of lobstermen are using pogies," Wotton said. "Closing the fishery itself was the right thing to do, but it's really going to cause hard times for the lobster industry."

Wotton said the combination of the bait closure, incoming NOAA regulations, fuel costs, and low returns on lobster landings puts pressure on lobstermen.

"This is just another issue that's going to affect them. ... There's a lot of turmoil in the industry right now," Wotton said.

The rising business costs for lobstermen put worry on the market. Currently, lobster prices at the market have been higher than in previous years, but Maine residents say supporting lobstermen can help bypass the rising costs.

"Unless the price goes up, they're not going to want to go out," Dave Kivus, of Owls Head, said. "It's in their blood to keep fishing. That's what's going to keep us consumers eating lobster."

Kivus said he recommends buying lobster directly from boats to put more money into lobstering businesses.

According to the release sent Thursday, the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic menhaden allows for Maine to harvest roughly 2.2 million pounds.

"The commissioner has determined that it is necessary to take emergency action to end the commercial fishing season to prevent unusual damage to the menhaden resource by exceeding available quota," the release said. 

To read more about the closure, click here to see the Maine Department of Marine Resources release.

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