- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 5, 2016

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - Maine regulators are considering intervening to help fix a bait shortage that threatens to affect its signature lobster fishing industry.

Lobstermen typically use herring for bait, and regulators and members of the fishing industry say there’s a shortage of them. The shortage is happening at the time of year when lobster catches usually start to pick up - and just as New England’s high tourist season is arriving.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources met Tuesday afternoon to discuss what role it can play. Meredith Mendelson, the deputy commissioner of the department, told The Associated Press before the meeting that the department anticipates passing rules at a later date based on Tuesday’s discussion.

The problem is that not enough herring are being caught on Georges Bank, a key fishing area off Massachusetts, members of the fishing industry said. That means there could be more herring fishing closer to the shore, and fishermen could reach their quota for that area before the summer is out.

“The issue is that we are seeing there is certainly a bait shortage, but we are also trying to limit what is landed, because there has not been fish coming in from offshore,” Mendelson said. “We want to try to stretch out the inshore bait supply throughout the summer season to the extent possible.”

The lack of bait is a problem for lobstering in all New England states, but it is felt the hardest in Maine, the biggest lobster fishing state in the country. Maine fishermen caught more than 120 million pounds of lobster - good for more than 80 percent of the nationwide catch - in 2014.

Sheila Dassatt, executive director of the Downeast Lobstermen’s Association, said bait supply is coming down to New England from Canada, but prices for herring have still been higher than usual. The rising costs have not trickled down to consumers, and live lobster remains available throughout New England.

But Bert Jongerden, general manager at Portland Fish Exchange auction house, said bait dealers are scrambling to find herring and taking their reserve supplies out of cold storage.

“The catch of herring is spotty,” he said. “You’ve got a little perfect storm going on down here.”

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