This summer’s edition of our ongoing lobster war with Canada may need to be postponed, or at least significantly scaled back. But this has nothing to do with settling the territorial dispute off the coast of Maine. The fact is that there just might not be nearly as much lobster fishing going on during the upcoming season, but it’s not for a lack of lobsters to catch. Current estimates indicate that the northeastern Atlantic lobster population is as strong as it’s been in many years. The problem is that the fisherman may not have enough bait for their traps because the real shortage we’re facing is in herring. (Associated Press)
The boom times for the U.S. lobster industry are imperiled this year because of a shortage of a little fish that has been luring the crustaceans into traps for hundreds of years.
Members of the lobster business fear a looming bait crisis could disrupt the industry during a time when lobsters are as plentiful, valuable and in demand as ever. America’s lobster catch has climbed this decade, especially in Maine, but the fishery is dependent on herring — a schooling fish other fishermen seek in the Atlantic Ocean.
Federal regulators are imposing a steep cut in the herring fishery this year, and some areas of the East Coast are already restricted to fishing, months before the lobster season gets rolling. East Coast herring fishermen brought more than 200 million pounds of the fish to docks as recently as 2014, but this year’s catch will be limited to less than a fifth of that total.
Why should you care about this? Well, if you don’t eat lobster or are rich enough to not care how much it costs, you probably won’t care. But this could not only drive up the price of lobster at restaurants but imperil the livelihood of hundreds of families that supply the tasty crustaceans to eateries around the country.
The culprit here appears to be federal regulators who are acting on reports of a decrease in the herring population. In response, they are limiting the amount of herring that can be taken this year to only 20% of the allowed catch in previous years. This means that the lobster fishermen either won’t be able to find any herring or, if they do, won’t pay the higher cost.
Lobster fishing is a low-profit-margin business to begin with. And according to the University of Maine Lobster Institute (yes… that’s a real thing) they have traditionally used herring stuffed into “bait bags” and suspended inside the traps to attract the lobsters. What’s not explained is why herring is the go-to choice. Surely there are other options, right?
Well, I’m guessing not, or the fishermen would already be using them. Returning to the Lobster Institute’s wealth of accumulated wisdom, they state that lobsters like to eat, “crabs, clams, mussels, starfish, smaller fish, and sometimes even other lobsters.” Clearly, “smaller fish” (like the herring) are the cheapest item on the lobster’s menu and you’re going to want to bait your traps with something the lobster recognizes as its usual prey. And I suppose herring are the most plentiful (and thereby affordable) option native to the region. Going to any more expensive bait will make lobster fishing unprofitable.
Hopefully, this act of government regulation won’t open the door to the Canadians swooping in with their more plentiful herring supplies and getting the upper hand. And if you still don’t believe the lobster wars are real, the University of Main has a trailer for the feature-length film Lobster War. Check it out for yourself.