Dr. Cem Giray, COO and Laboratory Director of Kennebec River Biosciences, presented an overview of risks to Maine’s fishery associated with imported baitfish at the 2015 Maine Fisherman’s Forum. The study was prompted in part by the increase in the number of species used as bait over the last few decades.  Among the more than 30 species commonly used as baitfish in Maine’s lobster and crab fisheries today, many are imported from distant locations including the continents of Asia, Australia, South America, and Europe.

Risk assessment of each baitfish source is important because without careful monitoring, movement of aquatic life can damage ecosystems, economies and livelihoods. Viral agents can cause diseases in finfish (e.g., viral hemorrhagic septicemia) as well as crustaceans (e.g., white spot syndrome in shrimp), as can bacteria or parasites.  These diseases can directly affect wild fisheries, and aquaculture operations, or both.  Invasive species can also compete with native species:  for instance, Caulerpa taxifolia is native to the Indian Ocean, but was accidentally introduced into the Mediterranean Sea.  An invasive algae, it has grown in dense monocultures, excluding other marine life and negatively affecting the livelihood of local fishermen.  Biofouling, in which aquatic species such as tunicates can clog nets & fishing gear, can be made worse when invasive species are introduced into environments where their natural predators or other controls do not exist.

The purpose of the study was to provide data on risk levels of alternative bait species sourced from different regions, allowing fishermen to make informed decisions while at the same time making as many baitfish species available for use as possible.

KRB’s study analyzed nearly 50 bait sources, and found that at present, a majority pose a low risk to Maine’s environment and to other aquatic species.  In cases where use of the particular bait source carries moderate risk, mitigation is possible.  The collection season, for instance, can influence whether a pathogen is absent or dormant.  Bait can be screened for targeted pathogens, using internationally accepted OIE standards.  Processing such as freezing or salting bait may also help in some cases by destroying potential pathogens or parasites.  A handful of the nearly 50 species screened by KRB were identified as posing an elevated risk.

As of June 2015, approved bait for lobster and crabs in Maine will include Atlantic cod and herring, croaker, halibut, kinky, lingcod, mackerel, mullet, orange roughy, menhaden, pollock, redfish, river herring, rockfish, sablefish, skate, shad, sole, tuna, and any species caught in Maine coastal waters or the NEFMC groundfish complex.

For specific, up-to-date regulatory information, readers should consult the lobster and crab baitfish page of the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

“’Maine is a relatively pristine environment still,” said Dr. Giray, “but it is changing.”  Ongoing monitoring will be required to help minimize future risk.