Herring quota

Herring were unloaded from a fishing boat in Rockland, Maine, in this 2015 file photo. Herring are the most important bait source for the lobster fishery. Regulators are contending with a drop in the herring population on the East Coast. Cuts in the herring catch quota will mean the total haul for 2019 will be less than a fifth of the 2014 harvest. AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

PORTLAND, Maine — Fishermen already dealing with a dramatic reduction in the amount of a key bait fish they are allowed to harvest will likely face an additional cut next year that could drive up the price of lobster for consumers.

Regulators on the East Coast are contending with a drop in the population of herring, a forage fish species that has been used as lobster bait for generations. Cuts in catch quota this year will mean the total haul for 2019 will be less than a fifth of the 2014 harvest, which was more than 200 million pounds.

A fishery management board is due to make a decision about the 2020 catch limits in early June. The options include maintaining this year's levels or reducing them further, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has said in public documents.

The agency wants to avoid overfishing at a time when a scientific assessment has shown a below-average number of young herring are joining the population. Scientists have said it's not clear why that's the case, but two possibilities they've cited are climate change and an abundance of predators.

The lobster industry has enjoyed large hauls in recent years, but it's dependent on bait to load traps. A spike in the price of bait could ultimately be felt by consumers in restaurants and fish markets.

For lobster fishermen, another cut to the quota would mean finding new sources of bait, said Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association. It's possible there won't be enough to go around, and prices are sure to be high.

"I've heard from other fishermen up and down the coast, from Maine to Massachusetts. It's going to be survival of the fittest," Casoni said. "Every year is challenging, and every year just gets a little more."

The drop in the herring population has also sometimes put the lobster and herring fisheries at odds with environmentalists who believe the herring fishery should be restricted because of its role in the ecosystem.

Herring are schooling fish that serve as food for whales, sea birds and large fish. Herring need to be managed for their role in the ecosystem and not just their economic value, said Erica Fuller, an attorney with Conservation Law Foundation.

"We're approaching a tipping point where we need to be careful not to lose all of our forage species at the same time," Fuller said.

The fishermen will get an idea of how much of a cut they could experience in 2020 when a committee of the New England Fishery Management Council meets on May 30 in Wakefield, Massachusetts. The full council could cast a vote during the second week of June in Portland.

The council is also scheduled to set limits for 2021 but has said those numbers are likely to be revised based on a new assessment of the stock that is expected to take place next year.

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