The American Lobster Board took a first step toward adopting regional bait safety rules, voting Monday to develop a resolution to prohibit the use of exotic baits that could introduce disease, parasites or invasive species to East Coast waters.
The board unanimously agreed on the need to shield native species, including the $1.4 billion Maine lobster industry, from the dangers posed by the mad scramble for new kinds of bait that may occur when regulators slash herring quotas next year.
This action came at the request of Maine Department of Marine Resources, which enacted its strict bait rules in 2013. But Commissioner Pat Keliher said risky bait is still finding its way into the Gulf of Maine through New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Canada.
“This is one of the most serious issues we face as an organization,” Keliher told the board.
The board agreed to develop a bait safety resolution based on Maine’s rules that all lobstering states would enact by 2020 – a quick but voluntary fix. To get compliance, the board also plans to begin the slow process of adding bait safety to its lobster management plan.
The horseshoe crab board, for example, passed a similar resolution banning the use of Asian horseshoe crabs as bait. Most member states voluntarily honored the bait ban resolution, but New York continues to allow the practice, regulators noted.
With the looming cuts in herring quota, some fishermen have urged Maine to relax its bait rule, but Keliher says he won’t do that, arguing short-term relief is not worth the small but potentially catastrophic risk to lobster or other native fisheries.
Instead, Keliher sought board support to apply Maine’s bait rules throughout the region. It only takes a single bait truck of farmed Vietnamese catfish infected with white spot disease or Asian carp carrying viral hemorrhagic septicemia to kill of a fishery, he said.
“Our process is challenging, but it’s better than the alternative,” Keliher said.
Maine maintains a list of allowed and prohibited lobster and crab baits vetted by its fish health technical committee, which is made up of government, university and private-industry aquatic animal health professionals.
This committee reviews new bait requests – scouring scientific literature about the species as well as its originating region – to see if they pose a threat to Maine’s ecosystem. If there is no threat, the bait can be used. Testing can be ordered to check for pathogens.
The committee added four species, such as the Patagonian toothfish, to the permitted bait list this summer, for example. In other cases, the committee agreed to grant one-time exceptions, based on test results.
It is difficult to vet an obscure species from undeveloped parts of the world, where there is not much scientific research to rely on, Keliher said. The state has neither the staff nor resources to vet such a request.
The board will look to enact its bait safety rules in Gulf of Maine first, where the herring quota cuts pose the most immediate threat, but Keliher is keen to have bait safety rules apply to the entire East Coast, including all managed bait fisheries.
Herring, a small oily forage species that is a favorite food for lobsters as well as other predator fish, sea birds and sea mammals, is suffering from a record-low number of juveniles. To boost spawning, and keep predators fed, regulators are slashing the 2019 and 2020 quotas.
The New England Fishery Management Council voted last month to set the 2019 herring quota at 32.1 million pounds – about 78 million pounds less than what the East Coast herring fleet can land this year.
Regulators are preparing for a bait deficit of more than 50 million pounds, depending on the federal government’s final decisions, ability of lobstermen to conserve bait and availability of other popular substitutes, like menhaden or rockfish.
But even combined, bait dealers think typical herring alternatives won’t make up for lost quota.
Cuts in the herring quota may make new kinds of bait attractive but they could introduce disease, parasites or invasive species. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald)