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Fishing industry hatches a plan to solve the lobster bait crisis

PORTLAND, Maine -- Members of the fishing industry are cautiously optimistic about a plan to help fix a growing bait crisis that could threaten the New England lobster business.

The lobster fishing industry is short of bait because of a shortage of herring being caught far off of New England. But officials with Maine's Department of Marine Resources believe they have brokered a solution to provide a steady stream of herring over the summer.

Fishermen are still catching herring, which is the most popular lobster bait, in Maine's inshore waters. The state has announced an emergency rule, set to go into place Saturday, that limits herring fishermen's weekly catch to 600,000 pounds in the hopes of preventing fishermen from reaching their quotas too fast.

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Members of the herring and lobster industries both said they are nervous about the plan, but that it might be their best hope. Rockland lobster dealer Jamie Steeves, who supplies boats with bait, called the changes a start, but added that the lack of bait is starting to tax lobstermen right at the start of the busiest portion of the fishing season.

"I have over 130 boats that are crying every day because I can't get bait," Steeves said. "It's going to be rough."

The lack of lobster hasn't impacted the price or availability of lobsters, which are plentiful in restaurants and markets around New England. But the lack of bait has the ability to impact the industry throughout the region, said Jennie Bichrest, a Sebasco Estates bait dealer.

"The state has said this is the only way we can stretch the quota out," she said. "It's going to affect everybody, but Maine is probably hardest hit."

Marine resources deputy commissioner Meredith Mendelson said inshore herring fishermen are about a quarter of a way through their summer quota. She said reaction to the emergency rule has been "mixed," and the agency hopes the lobster industry will be more judicious in its use of bait over the summer.

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