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Maine Lobstermen Aid Herring Research

May 22, 2015
Stewarding the Ecosystem

Most lobstermen dock their boats when the sun sinks below the horizon. But for ten lobstermen across the coast of Maine, nighttime brings only a change, not an end, to the day’s work. The lobstermen log these extra hours in pursuit of more accurate stock assessments and better management of one humble but crucial species: herring.

Herring make up Maine’s largest fishery (by volume), and have a foundational role in the ecosystem. As a forage fish, herring are an important food source for many marine and coastal species such as osprey, whales, and tuna. Their primary commercial use is as bait for lobster traps.  

Despite its importance, our understanding of the species is limited. There has been little effort to determine where herring spawn and thrive throughout the year. Moreover, we have no information about their activity in the rockier in-shore areas. A lack of adequate survey data increases the risk of overfishing or losing critical spawning areas – trouble for the Gulf of Maine food web and our lobster industry.

Observing both the economic and ecological risks, we convened scientists and fishermen to pursue common goals: accurate science and sustainable management of a critical resource. This collaboration aims to help inform where and when closures should happen. The research will provide managers the necessary information to assign herring catch quota for the commercial industry, ensuring the future viability of the ecosystem and the lobster industry.

Each of the ten boats involved in the survey is equipped with echosounders, which use acoustics or sound to decipher the presence and relative biomass of herring underneath the boat. Since 2012, from September to November, each lobsterman has collected acoustic data weekly or bi-weekly over 60-mile transects. Each trip can take up to eight hours, a huge commitment for lobstermen. None can doubt their toughness, tenacity, or commitment to this cause.

The rare design of this long-term, repeated sampling helps provide detailed information about herring activity across the entire coast of Maine. No previous survey comes close to the spatial and temporal scale of this effort, as most represent a quick snapshot in time, or a much smaller geography. 

This work would not be possible without the steadfast commitment of our partner lobstermen. They’ve added long hours and the stress of extra labor to an already demanding job. Thanks to their determination, we’re learning more and more every year about the herring resource. We’re better prepared than ever before to help steward this fishery for the benefit of both the Gulf of Maine and the people who depend on it.