The effect of herring on lobsters

It’s estimated that more than 73,000 metric tons of herring are dumped each year along the coast of Maine for lobster bait, but how does the use of herring bait affect the lobsters that are being harvested in the Gulf of Maine?

That is the question Dr. Phil Yund and other scientists are hoping to answer this year as part of their collaborative research project entitled “Are we using herring to farm lobsters?: Effect of herring bait on lobster growth, and fate of discarded bait in bethnic communities.”

The project was funded last year by a $111,972 grant from the Northeast Consortium, and its objectives are simple and straightforward.

Yund, along with Jon Grabowski and Erika Clesceri of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, will use their research to determine the proportion of lobster diet and tissue derived from bait; assess the impact of a bait-augmented diet on lobster growth and population density; quantify the initial fate of discarded herring bait in the benthic community, and conduct an economic assessment of lobster production versus herring cost.

The project is scheduled to get underway in May and it should be finished in November, according to Yund. The study will focus on two specific areas, comparing data collected from the area surrounding Monehegan Island in Maine and the waters near Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick.

“Basically, we want to find out what’s really happening with all of the herring we dump as bait,” Yund said. “For instance, what other species are eating it, besides the lobsters?”

According to Yund, approximately 25,000 metric tons of lobster is harvested each year. The scientists are now wondering whether those lobsters are being affected, in terms of size and location, by the use of herring bait.

“What [lobsters] feed on during the summer is what makes them grow,” Yund said, explaining why the project will be conducted during the summer months.

In order to make their project work, the scientists needed the help of some lobstermen who know the geographic study area. Carl Wilson of the Maine Department of Marine Resources served as a liaison for the project and enlisted the help of some local lobstermen, including Matt Webber (F/V Griffin) from Monehegan Island.

 A need to participate

 Webber, 25, is relatively young, but says he has a lot invested in the lobstering industry. Thus, he says, it made sense to participate in a collaborative research project that could have long-term impacts upon his livelihood.

“I work in a six-month fishery (Dec.- May),” Webber said. “Because of the closures, I end up with a lot of time on my hands At least this way, I’m able to be out on my boat, but I’ll also get to be a part of the process and I think that’s a good thing.”

Although Webber said he is interested in the research aspect of the project, he also expressed concerns about increased regulations, including trap limits and net change requirements.

“I think the more you know about a species, the better you can actually forecast what may take place in the future,” he said. “I’m young, and I want to be doing this for the rest of my life.”

Like many other fishermen who participate in collaborative research projects, Webber said he is expecting to face some challenges and minor difficulties by agreeing to work on the project.

“Sure, I’ll incur some costs. . . like increasing my insurance and picking up some extra survival gear, but I would still say it’s worth it,” he said. “This is my life and I want to be a part of it.”

The project’s goals

According to the project’s summary, recent lobster landings have been higher than traditionally thought to be sustainable. The thousands of tons of herring that are dumped into coastal waters each year are believed to be contributing to this production, and likely are having additional consequences for the near-shore benthic environment.

Three complementary methods will be used to assess the relative contribution of herring to lobster diet and growth in areas with and without bait.

Lobster gut contents will be examined to assess dietary impact. Secondly, nitrogen stable isotope ratios will be used to compare longer term effects of herring bait on lobster biomass production. Finally, single-season growth rates will be compared to determine whether the presence of herring bait increases short-term growth. By addressing these issues, this project will begin to assess how different fisheries are interconnected by fishing practices of lobster production versus herring cost.

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