There’s something fishy in the lobster bait industry, and it’s not the herring. For the guys working the boats, the fish they are catching is staying cold and fresh — it’s the restrictions on the industry that stinks.
“We are starting to get regulated out of a job,” said Ben Banow, a commercial bait fisherman working on the Double Eagle out of Rockland, Maine, for the past 23 years. Prior to that, Banow worked as a lobsterman, so he has experience on both sides of the catch.
“When a fishery starts making money, then the big companies come along with their lobbyists,” said Banow. With the new regulations set in place, smaller boats like the Double Eagle can’t keep up with the demand of lobstermen in the traditional, small-scale way that has worked for years.
Although the Double Eagle, built in 1929, is a noteworthy as a postcard-perfect wooden boat built in Maine, she is also an example of the smaller herring bait fleet that has a certain niche catering to lobstermen living on the islands throughout the coast. The Double Eagle was originally a sardine catcher built for owner Glen Lawrence before she was sold off and let go into disrepair. The current owner — also named Glen Lawrence with no relation — rebuilt the boat in North End Shipyard in Rockland during the late 1980s. Since then, she’s been fishing for bait ever since, and also watching the fading bait industry along that waterfront.
“Back then, Rockland had a lot of fish plants. Now they are all gone,” said Banow.
So the Double Eagle turned another tack and works alongside the 80-foot steel seiner Western Sea. Coming alongside, the wooden boat ties up to the net and will offload fish — up to 50 tons — into her hold. From there, it’s a bit of a milkman run, delivering bait to places like the wharf in Stonington or at Swan’s Island where the fish is pumped into the tanks of an old salmon hatchery for further processing into bait barrels. To stay competitive, the Double Eagle has added an RSW (refrigerated seawater system) to keep the herring cold.
The biggest challenge for the last active Eastern Rig bait boat on the East Coast is coming from the arrival of midwater trawlers, notorious for fishing out the herring across the Atlantic on the north coast of Scotland. As they moved into Maine, and caused problems catching lobster gear, regulations were placed including a certain number of landing days.
Because the Double Eagle works seine nets and is also a bait carrier, she was included in the trawling regulations. It’s a regulation that doesn’t quite fit, however, and the owners and crews of these smaller boats are waiting to have their say to find a solution that satisfies regulations, but also keeps them competitive.
Look for more on the Double Eagle, and the captivating story of the bait industry on both coasts in the pages of National Fisherman in the coming months.