PORTLAND, Maine (AP) – Lobster fishermen fear there could be a shortage of bait for their traps next year under a proposal to sharply cut the herring catch in the Northeast.

A fishery management committee met Tuesday in Portland to review and discuss a proposal to limit the harvest to 90,000 metric tons in each of the next three years. The cap this year is 145,000 tons.

Fishermen say such steep cuts would give herring fishermen less fish to catch, thus reducing supply and driving up the price of herring that lobster fishermen use as bait. The reduced catch also would cut supplies for sardine canneries and for processors who freeze herring for overseas markets.

“This is going to create a big, big hardship,” said Glenn Robbins, a third-generation fisherman who fishes for both lobster and herring out of Rockland, Maine.

A committee made up of members from the New England Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission on Tuesday discussed a proposal set forth by a panel of scientists who reviewed an assessment of the herring resource in the Northeast.

The scientific panel recommended that catch limits be reduced to 90,000 tons, based on the uncertain outlook of the herring population in the region. Scientists said the harvest should be cut to ensure a robust fishery in the future, but at the same time said herring is not being overfished, leading many people in the industry to question why new catch limits are needed.

The committee was prepared to decide Tuesday what it thinks the catch limits should be for 2010, 2011 and 2012, and how the harvest should be divided among four fishing zones stretching from Canada to New Jersey. The full New England Fishery Management Council is scheduled to have the final vote in November.

A fleet of fewer than two dozen boats actively fish for herring in the region. Most of the catch goes to lobster bait, with smaller amounts going to processors in Massachusetts and sardine canneries in Maine and New Brunswick.

Herring is the predominant bait used in the more than 2 million traps off the Maine coast. With less available, lobstermen would have to pay more for herring and turn to other types of bait – such as menhaden or redfish – for their traps, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

The higher cost will put yet another financial squeeze on lobstermen who are already reeling under low prices and the global economic slowdown, she said. Lobstermen are getting $2.50 to $2.90 a pound for their catch, down from $4 to $4.25 this time a couple of years ago.

“It is going to be devastation, plain and simple,” McCarron said. “We are not going to have bait when we need it, and the bait we do have coming in will be scarce and will be cost-prohibitive for many to fish next year.”

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