Maine is running out of lobster bait. Is salmon the answer?

Maine’s lobster fishery is one of the country’s most valuable sources of seafood, but lobster bait fish numbers have crashed. Could oft-scorned salmon farms fill the gap?

Photograph by Fred Bavendam, Minden Pictures/Nat Geo Image Collection
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With the decline of herring, the most popular bait fish for lobster traps, lobstermen must find another source.

Photograph by Fred Bavendam, Minden Pictures/Nat Geo Image Collection

People love lobster. For some, it’s nostalgic, eliciting memories of bygone days and summers in Maine. For others, it’s a celebratory meal reserved for special occasions. From whole lobster or tail to a lobster roll or bisque—from Panera, McDonald’s, and Red Lobster to the finest white-tablecloth restaurant, lobster is an iconic American food. And waitstaff and apps tell diners that Maine lobster is thriving—it’s a sustainable fishery certified by the Marine Stewardship Council—so they can feel good about what’s on their plates.

The bait used to catch lobster, however, is less on people’s minds. But it’s unavoidable when talking to Maine’s lobstermen these days.

Genevieve McDonald fishes out of Maine’s largest lobster port aboard the F/V Hello Darlings II. Last November, she became Maine’s first female commercial fisherman (“fisherman” and “lobsterman” are the strongly preferred terms for both women and men in the industry, she says) elected to the Maine House of Representatives, representing a district that includes Maine’s two biggest lobster ports. Not surprisingly, McDonald ran on a platform many in the fishing industry support. But above all else, one issue stood out.

“Our biggest issue is the bait crisis,” she said in November, regarding a newly imposed 70 percent catch limit cut for herring, the most popular lobster bait. “I can’t get the herring quota back,” she said, “but I want to try to see about other species.”

Lobster is big business in the U.S., and in Maine especially. With the country’s lobster fishery valued at almost $600 million in 2017, it’s the third most valuable fishery in the U.S.—and roughly 80 percent of its value comes from Maine. The looming bait crisis is a serious concern for the Pine Tree State.

It’s unclear why Atlantic herring are struggling, but the data show a record low number of juvenile fish. In response, regulators have now made dramatic cutbacks to the number of herring allowed to be caught.

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The American lobster is an iconic food and the third most valuable fishery in the U.S. Maine is far and away the largest producer of lobster.

Lobster fishermen are not happy. “It is going to be really devastating,” Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, told the New England Fisheries Management Council in September. “People aren’t going to be able to fish. There’s just not going to be enough bait.” McCarron said lobstermen are going to go out of business. Those who keep fishing will pay more for the herring that is available, but they’re also going to need to find alternative baits, including expensive imported wild baits.

McDonald has an idea to help solve the bait problem, but it’s a controversial one: farmed salmon scraps. The trouble is that some Maine fishermen have long been opposed to salmon farms for the potential damage they can cause to the gulf habitat and fishery with chemical and fecal runoff. On the dock, it’s not uncommon to hear the sentiment expressed by a bumper sticker that reads, “Friends don’t let friends eat farmed salmon.” The idea that farmed salmon could be what helps their industry survive the bait shortage doesn’t sit well with some lobstermen who have a dim view of fish farming in general.

“It’s not just the immediate physical loss of the lobster grounds while [the fish farms] in operation,” says Kim Ervin Tucker, a lawyer representing the Maine Lobstering Union. “They leave such devastation on the bottom of the ocean. They create dead zones.”

With the looming bait crisis, however, some are looking at salmon farms through a new lens, and some lobstermen are seeing a large, local, and unexploited source of bait.

The trouble with salmon

Maine is the largest producer of farmed Atlantic salmon in the U.S., with fish farmers growing the salmon to size in net pens in the sea. McDonald has proposed that the leftovers after the fish are filleted be used as bait. These leftovers, called salmon racks, are the fish’s skeleton, with any attached flesh, and sometimes the head.

Salmon racks haven’t seen the inside of a Maine lobster trap for twenty years. In 1999, Maine’s fisheries department prohibited their use because a deadly disease, infectious salmon anemia, was found on a Canadian fish farm only three miles from a U.S. farm. The disease can cause mass mortality in endangered Atlantic salmon. At the time, fish health experts determined salmon byproducts could carry the virus, which could then be transmitted to wild salmon, with potentially dire consequences for both wild fish and uninfected fish farms.

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Lobsterman Genevieve McDonald was elected to Maine’s House of Representatives in 2018. She’s proposing that the “racks” (skeletons and sometimes heads) of farmed salmon be approved as a new source of lobster bait in the Gulf of Maine.

Now, however, McDonald thinks, farmed salmon could potentially be part of the solution lobster fishermen need to continue to thrive.

This year’s bait crisis coincides with two new large salmon farm projects currently in the permitting process in Maine. Both farms are land-based, recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS), which means the salmon are in self-contained tanks for their entire lifecycle—a stark difference from traditional salmon farming. “Salmon racks from land-based aquaculture will have a clear chain of custody,” McDonald explains, so there’s “a greater guarantee they are free from pathogens and disease.”

Marianne Naess, the commercial director for Nordic Aquafarms, the larger of the two RAS projects, adds that land-based farms can also more easily control everything else that enters the facility, including other aquatic life, birds and non-farm-related boats and other equipment, than a farm with net pens can. Fish health experts generally agree the risks of using racks from a land-based farm are lower than using many other baits, which is important since Maine has some of the most stringent bait approval procedures in New England.

Protecting water

While there’s not a lot of opposition to the idea of using racks from land-based salmon farms as lobster bait, there is some opposition to the farms themselves. A group of concerned citizens from Belfast, Maine, the site of the Nordic Aquafarms facility, calls the proposed farm a “concentrated animal feeding operation,” a term often used interchangeably with “factory farm” by opponents of large terrestrial livestock operations. They allege land-based fish farms are “the most carbon-intensive in modern factory farming,” given the amount of energy required to run the pumps and filtration systems.

The Maine Lobstering Union also opposes the farm. “It’s an environmental catastrophe,” Tucker says. According to her, the Maine Lobstering Union’s primary concern is the farm’s water discharge and the potential to pollute the bay and negatively affect commercial fishing. Tucker speculates that even if concerns about the farm’s discharge are addressed in the Maine Department of Environmental Protection permitting process, lobster fishermen might not want to use the racks.

“[The racks] literally would be treated as medical waste,” she says. “Whether we would ever use salmon in the lobster traps as bait would depend on whether it’s had any hormone exposure. Because if it’s had hormone exposure or pesticide exposure, that’s the last thing a lobsterman is going to put in the trap.” However, fish farms must adhere to strict human health guidelines requiring withdrawal periods to ensure that fish do not contain antibiotics or pesticides at the time of harvest.

Other associations are more supportive of the idea of using salmon racks from RAS farms as bait, including Maine’s largest group representing the lobster fishery—the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA).

“If Nordic Aquafarms is successful getting their plant up and running,” says MLA’s McCarren, “then we are definitely interested in working with them to see about getting their renderings as an approved bait source in Maine.”

More sustainable seafood

Fish raised in land-based aquaculture facilities earned the highest rating for aquacultured fish from Seafood Watch, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s program that publishes a list ranking seafood species’ sustainability. In a 2014 report, Seafood Watch wrote, “RAS are shown to be a promising method for reducing many of the environmental impacts associated with aquaculture worldwide, and as such, recirculating aquaculture systems should be further developed and supported by both the aquaculture industry as well as the global sustainable seafood movement.”

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Naess says Nordic’s goal is to be as environmentally sustainable as possible. While land-based fish farming mitigates many of the risks traditionally associated with net pen farming, including escapes and the transmission of parasites and disease to wild fishes, one big challenge for both methods is sustainable feed. In 2000, it took more than three pounds of fish biomass (in the form of food) to produce one pound of farmed salmon. Today, it’s more even, requiring about one pound of fish to produce 1.3 pounds of farmed salmon, but that fails to consider processing and how byproducts like racks are used. This remains one of the least discussed areas for improvement in aquaculture, but it’s one Nordic is taking seriously.

A 2017 paper in the journal Marine Policy found that better utilizing the whole fish is both more sustainable and improves the bottom line. As part of its sustainability goals, Nordic says this is a big focus for them. Having local markets for byproducts like salmon racks cuts down on the farm’s overall carbon footprint. Another benefit is that selling their salmon racks to lobstermen would provide a reliable source of bait that would take pressure off Atlantic herring, an important consideration given that it takes about one pound of herring to harvest one pound of lobster.

Next steps

Baiting traps with farmed salmon racks won’t happen overnight. The rulemaking process generally takes around 100 days. If the Maine Department of Marine Resources decides to permit the use of land-based farms’ salmon racks in Maine waters, then Nordic will apply for approval for its salmon racks to be a new bait source.

Naess, at Nordic, has already met with officials at the department to discuss the approval. “The feedback regarding changes in regulations has been positive,” Naess says, and the commissioner has expressed willingness to go forward.

Nordic plans to sell their first fish by 2022, and at full capacity, they say they will produce 33,000 metric tons annually.

Given that salmon racks are roughly 10 percent of whole fish weight, and heads are another 10 percent, that’s potentially a lot of bait to more sustainably fuel American’s love of lobster. McDonald says she’s looking forward to using it.