Lobster Bait
Legislators Propose Hide But No Hair

 By Aaron Porter

ELLSWORTH — A close shave could soon be essential to any lobster bait salesman who wants to make it in Maine.

Last week, the Marine Resources Committee unanimously supported an amended bill, intended to outlaw the use of most hide and offal bait starting in 2006. The only exception to that law would be for the use of animal hide from which the hair has been removed.

Heated debate about the use of so-called “alternative bait” isn’t new to Maine’s lobster industry. In the fall of 2003 lobstermen along the coast started voicing concerns about the growing use of bait made of animal hide. In early 2004, Bass Harbor lobsterman Steve Carter circulated a petition among lobstermen urging a ban on the use of alternative bait until the state could study its effects on lobsters.

His petition raised even more public discussion on the issue and helped stirred the state Department of Marine Resources (DMR) to examine its inability to regulate the use of such baits.

While a request for proposals was sent out to the scientific community to conduct some research into the effects of hide bait, Maine lobster biologist Carl Wilson said the $20,000 set aside for study remains unspent as the immediate future for alternative bait is hashed out in the Legislature. 

This latest move from the Marine Resources Committee came about as a result of the public hearing on a bill introduced by Sen. Dennis Damon (D-Hancock County) at the request of he Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

LD 527 was intended to give Maine’s marine resources commissioner the authority to regulate the use of alternative bait through rulemaking procedures. Damon said the intention was to give the commissioner some basic ability to have say as to what gets put down in traps as bait. In the absence of specific scientific information about the various alternative baits, no definitions or prohibitions were proposed originally. That changed following the public hearing.

Damon said DMR drafted the proposed amendment he introduced, which specifically banned the use of wild or domestic animal renderings or offal as bait to fish for lobster of crabs. An exception was specified for animal hide bait from which the hair had been removed. The amendment also specified that, for the purposes of enforcement, the presence of such bait on a lobster or crab boat would be evidence of a violation. The new laws would come into effect Jan. 1.

According to Damon, the amended bill would address two of the three basic areas of concern in the alternative bait discussion as it has been carried on by lobster fishermen, fisheries scientists and resource managers.

First, there’s a market concern that comes from the reports that animal hair from the hide bait is showing up in the gut of lobsters when they go to market. Lobster with animal hair in it is simply less marketable than lobsters without, especially in Japan. Those market concerns prompted a ban on hide bait in the west Australian rock lobster fishery in 2002 after hair was reportedly found in the guts of a small percentage of the catch. The Australian fishery is particularly dependent on Japanese consumers. Damon warned that just the perception of a problem with hair in the lobsters could damage Maine’s market.

The second concern is the health of fishermen using the unregulated bait. Lobstermen at the public hearing on the bill gave accounts of some bait that is essentially sweepings from the slaughterhouse floor. Damon said, lobstermen told the committee of infections they got after handling the least refined of some of the alternative baits. In addition to cow hides, moose and deer hides as well as pig renderings are used in some of the baits available.

The third major worry is what impact the widespread use of alternative baits might have on the health of the wild lobsters that feed from traps on a regular basis. That includes what effect the bait could have on the broader marine environment where it is used.

Damon said, as the bill is written, it addresses the first two concerns, but “we can’t get to the last one without science.”

“We don’t know what impacts there are from the processes they use to produce it,” said Deputy Commissioner David Etnier of the alternative baits. However, he noted that defining what sort of bait would be acceptable and allowing the commissioner the latitude to implement additional rules, is a good regulatory combination. “It would be difficult to set standards for a product that’s evolving,” he said.

Although there’s no more known about the effects of the shaved bait on lobsters than of the other varieties, the decision was made to allow the former on grounds that the hair wouldn’t be an issue and the possibility of harming lobstermen would be reduced by allowing only hide.

The other wild card in the bait debate is the security of the wild herring supply, which still accounts for the majority of lobster bait. In recent years the supply has been spotty, driving the price of bait up and making alternative bait more of a realistic option for lobstermen. The hide is longer lasting in the traps, easy to transport in buckets, and consistently available. Fishermen used to fish the bait strategically at times when traps couldn’t be regularly tended or when sand fleas were cleaning out the herring bait. But as sources of wild fish bait fluctuate, more fishermen are likely to turn to alternatives.

Damon and Etnier said the delay of implementation of the proposed law until next year would allow fishermen to work through the supplies of bait they might already have on hand. It also would allow bait suppliers a window of time to come up with shaved bait alternatives.

Robert Brown, co-owner of hide bait producer SeaLure, didn’t respond to calls by press time.

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