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Seafood in the Spotlight: Herring

Harpswell Heritage Land Trust
July 17, 2018

FV Ruth & Pat, a herring purse seiner

By Monique Coombs, Director of Marine Programs, Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association

According to the Department of Marine Resources, “the Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) is the most important pelagic fishery resource in the state of Maine.” This is mostly because herring is a forage fish that not only feeds larger prey in the ocean but also is a primary bait source for many lobstermen. In 2017, about 66 million pounds of herring were landed in Maine, valued at about $18 million.

Recently, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) instructed the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office (GARFO) to decrease the catch for the current fishing year. This is in response to an ongoing stock assessment showing significant declines in herring. The idea behind the decrease in this year’s fishing is to leave more fish in the ocean in a hope to mitigate further declines.

There are two ways that herring is caught — purse seine and mid-water trawlers. A purse seine is a net that surrounds a school fish and can be cinched up. A mid-water trawler drags a net behind the back of a boat. Many believe that purse seine boats have less of an impact on fish species, bycatch, and the ocean.

At this point, it is unclear how significant the impact of a herring decline will be on the lobster industry. Most of Maine’s lobstermen are inshore fishermen, which means they fish within three miles of shore and herring is a primary bait for them. Other bait options can include pogies, redfish, skate, or alewives. A lobsterman can spend upwards of $400 a day on bait and some fear that number will increase this summer because of a limited bait supply. Lobstermen are unable to set a price for their catch that reflects the amount of money that they spent to harvest the lobster, and this has some worried that the cost of doing business may put some lobstermen out of business.

Historically, herring was a good protein source and was often pickled, smoked, or salted. As Americans’ taste buds changed, this species has become less of a food source. It is an oilier fish with a strong “fishy” taste. If you’re interested in trying herring, Bar Harbor Foods offers canned herring that can be found at Hannaford.