BREWER — Dozens of Fishermen expressed preference and concern over some of the changes proposed for the menhaden fishery by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission during a Sept. 20 meeting in Brewer with the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Many fishermen were frustrated with legislative action this year that swamped the fishery with competition. The legislation required those who held an inactive fishing license for years 2019 through 2021 to prove that they had caught 25,000 pounds of menhaden in at least one of those years in order to keep their licenses. This created a situation in which several more fishermen were fishing for menhaden this year than in previous years.

Some fishermen shared concern that this year’s legislative action is what led to the Maine Department of Marine Resources closing down all commercial menhaden fishing early, on Aug. 28.

Tim Caldwell was fishing in Rhode Island but looking to move into a fishing industry in Maine to cut out the traveling when he got his menhaden license several years ago, he said. He saw a menhaden, also known as pogies in Maine, splashing around the water while visiting Sears Island several years ago and decided to look into it. “I showed up to Sears Island five years ago and saw the fish and went from there,” he said.

He started with a 50-foot gillnet and a canoe out of Stockton Springs but has worked his way up over the last few years to a boat with an engine and purse seine net out of Belfast, he said. The menhaden fishery is the majority of his yearly income — it is one of the few fisheries in Maine where he can make decent money.

The state’s legislation earlier this year closed the fishery off to new fishing licenses and while Caldwell is glad to finally be on the right side of a closed-access fishery, he empathizes with those who are now locked out.

“We all feel each other’s pain but there’s really no common voice, it’s hard to get everybody to agree on something,” he said.

The biggest problem Caldwell sees with the legislation is how it forced all inactive license holders to start fishing this year, which put more strain on the fishery and how much the state is allowed to catch, which led to the August closure.

“Now have an unmanageable amount of boats in the fishery, whereas if they’d just shut it off and didn’t give those guys a chance to go fishing, they had a manageable amount of boats already in the fishery, so it was a complete backward step,” he said.

He thinks menhaden was the last fishery accessible to up-and-coming fishermen who have been cut out of other fisheries with strict license requirements — like the lobster industry, he said.

Tim Caldwell, left, poses for a photo with his niece and nephew next to his boat in Belfast Harbor after pogie fishing in 2021. Courtesy of Tim Caldwell

Menhaden: the new bait fish

As the herring fishery continues a decline, many lobstermen are turning to menhaden for bait, Caldwell said. It has created a boom in the state’s menhaden fishery. The menhaden he catches and sells to fishermen is being used immediately. At times, the lobstermen he was selling menhaden to were using it up in days.

The menhaden population has experienced periods of low and high abundance since the 20th century, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission 2022 stock assessment overview. Currently, the menhaden stock is not being overfished.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is composed of members from states and territories along the Atlantic Ocean from Maine to Florida and establishes the rules for several fisheries, including menhaden.

The commission sets the total amount of fish that are allowed to be caught among all states and then divvies up that share among the states based on how many menhaden each state’s fishermen caught from 2009 to 2011, according to the commission’s proposed amended management plan. That limit is based on biological markers in the environment to make sure menhaden are not overfished.

The menhaden fishery in Maine during those years was not as active as it is now, Department of Marine Resources Director of External Affairs Megan Ware said at the meeting. Each state starts with a base allocation of 0.5% and Maine’s allocation is slightly higher than that at 0.52% of the fishery, or roughly 2 million pounds of menhaden.

Other provisions of the commission’s rules allow states to catch more menhaden than the amount the state is allocated, such as the episodic event set-aside quota, transfer quota from other states and the incidental catch and small-scale fishery provision, she said.

Utilizing these provisions, Maine usually catches around an additional 18 million pounds or more of menhaden per year, according to the department’s emergency rulemaking document, which shut down the commercial industry Aug. 28. Maine fishermen usually catch over 20 million pounds of menhaden each year. Fishermen exceeded the 194,400-metric-ton limit established for the whole fishery in 2021.

Maine fishermen have been catching more menhaden under the incidental catch and small-scale fishery provision for the last couple of years compared to other states, according to the emergency rulemaking document.

The state has landed 170% more pounds of menhaden under the incidental catch and small-scale fishery provision compared to last year in part because of an increased number of fishermen in the fishery, according to the emergency rulemaking document. To date, fishermen in Maine have caught 15.8 million pounds under this provision.

Proposed Changes

The commission is proposing several amendments to the menhaden rules, some of which could result in an increase in Maine’s share of the menhaden fishery, according to Fisheries Management Coordinator James Boyle. The objective of the changes is to align states’ quotas more closely with recent landings data.

Until last year, fishermen have never gone over the coast-wide average, he said. The increase in landings in the Northeast indicates to the commission that there is an abundance of menhaden in the Northeast.

There are several options to consider under multiple aspects of the rule. Because Maine has been catching more menhaden under certain provisions in the rule, it could end up increasing its overall fishery share as much as 4.82% under one of the amendment options, Ware said at the meeting.

Virginia has the highest allocation of the fishery and New Jersey has the second-highest allocation of the fishery; together those states have the vast majority of the allocations, according to information on the commission’s website.

During the state’s Sept. 20 menhaden meeting in Brewer, a local fisherman displays what he calls a larger more mature menhaden caught in Maine, comparing it to the smaller less mature menhaden found in New Jersey. Photo by Kendra Caruso

Many of the fishermen at the September meeting expressed frustration that Maine menhaden fishermen are unable to provide the bait that Maine lobstermen are using, only to have those same lobstermen turn to the New Jersey menhaden fishery, sometimes at a higher cost.

One fisherman brought two menhaden fish in a cooler, one caught in Maine and one caught in New Jersey. He said larger fish caught in Maine was more mature and the smaller fish caught in New Jersey was less mature.

A Maine pogie fishermen displays at a state menhaden meeting Sept. 20 what he described as a smaller and less mature fish compared to the pogies caught in Maine. Photo by Kendra Caruso

Caldwell would like to see Maine menhaden fishermen providing the bait for Maine lobstermen, he said. “If this is ultimately where it’s going and where it’s coming, we should fight for the people of this state to have that industry and make that money for their communities and their neighbors,” he said.

Fishermen appeared to be most heated about one proposed amendment that would limit the gear used in the menhaden fishery. It would eliminate the use of purse seines, which are the type of nets that the majority of Maine fishermen use.

Purse seines do not require fishermen to cut fish and other wildlife out of nets, which has to be done with gillnets, according to several fishermen at the meeting. Purse seines allow them to throw back extra catch still alive, whereas gillnets result in greater fish mortality.

Comments on the proposed amendments can be submitted through email until Sept. 30 to (subject line: Atlantic menhaden draft addendum I). The commission will meet to consider the proposed amendments Nov. 6 through Nov. 10.