This article is republished from Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at hakaimagazine.com.
Imagine you’ve got a lobster in front of you, bright red and softly steaming. There’s a fish in that picture, too, though you can’t see it—the fish that was tucked into a trap to lure in the lobster that could end up on your dinner plate.
There’s no fish visible in the thick sausage Wally MacPhee lifts off the top of a half pallet of cardboard boxes either, even if it smells of the sea and has a piscine give to it when squeezed. But he’s hoping lobsters won’t know that—for the fishers’ sake, and for the sake of the small silvery baitfish this partially frozen cylinder is meant to replace.
In Canada’s Atlantic provinces, fisheries for lobster and snow crab are booming; in 2022, lobster prices reached record highs, and fisheries managers increased the quota for snow crab in some places by 32 percent. But these fisheries are on precarious footing nonetheless. The small species that have traditionally been used as bait—namely, mackerel and herring—have declined, leaving the long-term viability of the trap fisheries in question.
Help may come from a squat building abutting the wharf in Nine Mile Creek, Prince Edward Island, where MacPhee and his business partner Mark Prevost, who sport matching salt-and-pepper beards and black baseball caps, tour me around the small facility where they manufacture a bait alternative from fish processing waste that, at least for lobsters, is almost indistinguishable from the real thing.
Trying to convince people in a traditional industry to buy into something new is a challenge. Still, for MacPhee and Prevost, there’s an urgency to this work. It’s an imperative derived from Prevost’s own time as a commercial fisher when he was struck by how much of the fish he brought in wound up in traps rather than on the table. It was food, really, he says. “Using two pounds of bait to catch one pound of lobster just didn’t make any sense.”
Until recently, MacPhee and Prevost have been the ones more likely to be seen as nonsensical. Trap fisheries have used the same bait for centuries, and those forage fish have always been available. More importantly, in fisheries where seasons are short and every minute (and trap) counts, they’re effective. But amid concern about the state of fish stocks and a growing appreciation for the ecological importance of the species used in traps, the blind spot once occupied by bait has come into focus, with some fishers and researchers saying alternatives are desperately needed: for the well-being of coastal communities, for marine ecosystems, and for the disappearing fish carrying all of it on their backs.
As much as mackerel, herring, and other forage fishes underpin fishing in the northwest Atlantic, they serve an equally important role in marine ecosystems. Forage fish are part of the base of the ocean’s energy pyramid, consuming tiny creatures like copepods and, in turn, being consumed by humpback whales, puffins, and a whole host of other species.
Bait use has altered that food chain, with mackerel and herring turning lobsters, which would normally eat sea urchins and other bottom-dwellers, into fish eaters. Scientists have even hypothesized that because wily lobsters are so good at snagging a meal out of traps without being caught, the intensive use of bait can result in a larger lobster population than would exist otherwise. Yet until very recently, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) did not track the volume of bait being caught. Many lobster and crab fishers have licenses to catch their own mackerel and herring, and the magnitude of that catch was not quantified. Much of the commercial catch for these species, which is measured, also goes to bait.
Estimates for the region—the Atlantic provinces plus New England—paint a staggering picture, putting fish caught for bait at close to two million kilograms annually. The fact that such a mountain of fish has escaped serious consideration can be traced to the dominance of the fisheries that rely on it.
As stocks of species like cod have collapsed, lobster and, to a lesser extent, snow crab, have come to form the basis of North America’s most lucrative fisheries. Lobster makes up more than half the fishing revenue in Atlantic Canada, and some communities are almost entirely dependent on the crustacean. This fishing is, in turn, dependent on mackerel and herring for bait.
“Bait is almost a religious thing with harvesters—it’s tradition,” says Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada. Herring and mackerel have been the backbone of the fishery for a long time, he says.
But Atlantic mackerel and some populations of Atlantic herring have dropped to a fraction of their former levels. Many stocks are now in the critical zone—meaning that serious harm is likely occurring to the stock—and in some cases, have been that way for decades. Much of the decline can be attributed to overfishing, though climate change is playing a role as well.
Concern about bait is not an entirely new phenomenon. In 1949, for instance, after the fall run of Atlantic herring failed, the Canadian government reopened the Pacific herring fishery specifically to catch one million kilograms of fish for lobster harvesters on the East Coast. But bait use was nudged further toward a reckoning in March 2022, when Canada’s fisheries minister announced the closure of the Atlantic mackerel and one of the Atlantic herring fisheries, citing concerns with the state of the stocks. Fishers and harvesters’ associations swiftly condemned the decision, while environmental advocates said it was necessary. Either way, after years of declining availability of the small pelagic species, the closure wasn’t a total surprise.
“We could see it coming,” says Paul van de Wiel, general manager at the North Bay Fisherman’s Co-op, a lobster buyer and bait supplier in northern Nova Scotia, where many fishers who have their own licenses for bait no longer put out their nets, as the amount of fish they’re able to find isn’t worth the effort. Van de Wiel says he already sources roughly 50 to 60 percent of the mackerel he sells from outside North America. But he’s increasingly curious about the alternatives meant to get fishers off mackerel and herring altogether.
As harvesters grapple with the declines of traditional bait, more people are displaying that same curiosity. Still, scientists and manufacturers must first answer the obvious—but thorny—question: do the alternatives work?
To provide an answer, a lobster and a neuroethologist walk into a lab …
In this case, the “lab” is more like the field of view in a GoPro’s lens, but the neuroethologist part tracks. Since 2020, neuroethologist Russell Wyeth, whose research examines the relationship between animal brains and behavior, and a team of students have been using GoPros to record how lobsters in the Northumberland Strait—the stretch of ocean bordered by Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to the south and Prince Edward Island to the north—respond to different baits. Wyeth, who is a professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, used to focus his research on sea slug brains (“very much not the kind of thing that you would explain to someone in the pub and [have them] go, ‘Oh, that’s a good use of my tax dollars,’” he says), but he leapt at the chance to study lobster bait as an applied use of the science of animal behavior.
Wyeth says when he started, he was surprised to discover how little scientific research had been done in Canada on bait, given the size of the lobster industry. Two years in, the absence has started to make more sense—coordinating academic scientists and the highly decentralized lobster fishery is a complex task, never mind convincing skeptical harvesters to adopt something new.
Nonetheless, Wyeth’s lab has been trying to fill in the gaps. So far, his students have tested 20 different baits, from traditional options such as mackerel and herring to seafood byproducts, including the leftovers from snow crab and shrimp processing. On occasion, they’ve even tried chicken carcasses from the local farmers’ market. By sinking camera tripods affixed to bait and watching what lobsters do, they’re tracking how many lobsters—omnivorous scavengers that navigate using odor plumes—are lured by a given fare.
This research must happen in the field, Wyeth says, because lobsters tend to go on strike when studied in the lab—they hunker down in the corner of the tank or else stalk its perimeter, avoiding whatever it is you’re trying to get them to respond to. More importantly, testing baits in the field provides a greater chance of convincing fishers of the usefulness of the results.
Still, testing in the field requires more data than would be needed in the lab, which the team has—roughly 5,000 hours of video. Preliminary results from the analysis of that video suggest that traditional baits were near the top of the list, as you might expect for fish that have worked for generations. But the leftovers from seafood processing ranked as high or possibly higher.
“As a scientist, I don’t care what we find,” Wyeth says. But from the perspective of this research showing that fish byproduct is just as effective as baitfish, he says, the results couldn’t have come out any better.
Translating this research into meaningful change, though, is tricky—it’s as much a cultural and logistical problem as it is a scientific one.
Prevost and MacPhee, who call their company Bait Masters, are grappling with these challenges, too. In the company’s Prince Edward Island warehouse, the production line is still and gleaming—the company doesn’t yet have enough capital to run the line full-time. Nonetheless, MacPhee walks down its stainless-steel length, explaining how it works. In one end, a slurry made of byproduct (the head, guts, skin, and bones of fish—in this case, local haddock—that’s often thrown away once the fillet is removed), as well as whole fresh fish, plus a binder to make the bait last longer in the water than pure fish, is dumped into a metal funnel. It emerges on the other side as sausages, which are packed 21 to a box. It’s a far cry from the early days of the company, in 2017, when the setup consisted of a tabletop sausage grinder and two barrels welded together, and Canada Revenue Agency struggling to classify the company, having never heard of alternative bait.
The pair have done their own trials in partnership with the University of Prince Edward Island. Those tests showed the product lured a similar number of lobsters as traditional bait, but MacPhee says the best way to get buy-in from harvesters is to build a personal connection. When they were starting out, they developed a strategy of pulling up to wharves across the Maritimes during the fishing season, dropping the tailgate of the truck, and cracking open tanks of fish sausages to offer samples and demonstrations to anyone who was interested. Even as the company has grown, many people want to test the product before committing to a purchase, which would require sending small amounts to independent fishers in communities dotting the shoreline from Massachusetts to Newfoundland—an unfeasible proposition, given shipping costs.
Yet, the bait isn’t entirely alien. Byproduct makes up roughly 80 percent of the fish sausage; the rest is still fresh herring or mackerel. Ideally, they’d like to get the byproduct percentage to 100. In the meantime, Prevost says this is the blend they’ve found that entices fishers as well as lobsters. “It’s what’s working on the fishermen, because they’re so slow to change—we have to put in what they want to use.”
Still, some people are already looking at alternatives that remove mackerel and herring entirely. In Nova Scotia, a start-up called SuBait is testing a product made exclusively from fish byproduct, and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, researchers are studying whether the fish byproduct that a local company sells as fertilizer can also be turned into bait. Biologist Adrian Jordaan, who’s leading the project, says improving on Atlantic herring might not be possible. But byproduct alternatives could have some advantages, including lasting longer in traps than traditional bait, and, most importantly, repurposing fish discards—a 46-million-tonne problem in its own right, as 35 percent of the global fish harvest is wasted every year.
“It’s a giant switch, and it’s not likely to happen overnight—I mean, this is like trying to get off fossil fuels,” Jordaan says. “I think the question here though, is, how can we incrementally start changing things so that they’re more sustainable.”
Alternatives made from seafood byproducts aren’t the only options people are investigating. Everything from salted pig hide to audio recordings of lobsters chewing (which could entice crustaceans looking to join in on the feast) to invasive Asian carp have been proposed; in Canada, DFO does not restrict what harvesters can use as bait, though importing Asian carp is prohibited by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Jasmine Paul, a harvester who fishes with her parents out of southern Newfoundland, says they’ve tried a device that uses flashing lights to attract crabs—it didn’t work for them, despite the seafloor being a “sheet of crab,” which was a letdown—as well as cans of sardines and, on a lark, moose meat. For now, they mostly use squid and herring. Nonetheless, she supports fisheries closures meant to protect forage fish, so long as measures are put in place to help harvesters weather the transition. “In my opinion, response to economic stress for fish harvesters shouldn’t come at the cost of a species,” she says.
Ultimately, Jordaan thinks the transition will involve different recipes and forms of bait alternatives, as well as diversified bait species, to reduce the pressure on forage fish and to allow more of these fish to feed people, rather than lobsters and crabs.
But that switch to new species brings its own risks and opportunities.
On a sunny May morning, Chris Gertridge beckons me to where he’s standing, on the bank of the Gaspereau River in Nova Scotia. Underneath the fast-flowing water, I can just make out the shadowy shapes he’s pointing to, swimming languidly against the current. Gertridge tosses a rock in the water to scoot the gaspereau—the fish, not the river—toward the artificial eddy his fishing platform has created and follows them upstream. He leans his full weight on a tree trunk that serves as a lever, and the water in front of the platform begins to roil as a laden net rises out of the water. Working quickly, Gertridge and his brother scoop the fish out of the net and dump them into a large tub waiting on the bank of the river. Gertridge then tips the lever to lower the net back into the water—completing a cycle that his family has been performing, more or less unchanged, for six generations.
Something has shifted in this practice, however. For centuries, the fish were salted and shipped to Haiti, a legacy of the trade that started with European colonization. Ships carrying fish and other materials sailed from Atlantic Canada and New England to the Caribbean and returned carrying rum, sugar, and salt (a system in which slavery was, at one time, deeply implicated). But this year, for the first time, Gertridge doesn’t have a bucket of salt stationed next to the fish tub—instead, the entire catch will be going to bait.
As traditional sources of bait have declined, harvesters have turned to other locally available species, including gaspereau—a river herring found in the Atlantic Ocean from the Carolinas to Newfoundland. Every spring, gaspereau—also known as alewife outside of Atlantic Canada—migrate upriver to spawn, and along the way, a portion of the run is caught by fishers, including Gertridge.
In many ways, gaspereau is an obvious choice for a new bait, as there’s an existing commercial fishery, though there’s a lack of stock assessment data, and—in an echo of Atlantic herring and mackerel—conservationists say the increased use of gaspereau for bait is not being tracked.
But some groups are looking to make even bigger shifts. In New Brunswick, a fishing association has secured approval to retain some of the brown bullhead catfish that are turning up with increasing frequency in American eel and gaspereau traps. (It’s thought that the catfish are expanding into the space left by declines in other native species, like Atlantic salmon.) That bycatch is already currently going to lobster bait, though scaling up fishing effort to a commercial level is an onerous process that could take up to a decade. In the northernmost part of Nova Scotia, fishers are conducting a pilot study on the impact of retaining bycatch of cunner—a fish that sneaks into traps in search of a snack—to use as bait.
Some harvesters’ associations say allowing fishers to retain more incidental bycatch, or streamlining the approval process for new commercial fisheries, would help fishers adapt more quickly to the decline of traditional bait sources. This proposal is especially relevant as climate change brings more warm-water species to the region—though such shifts also run the risk of displacing fishing pressure onto new species, as does the sourcing of frozen baitfish from elsewhere. And import permit applications obtained through the Access to Information Act show these imports cover a dizzying array of species: plaice and flounder from the Netherlands, rock crab and squid from the United States, mackerel from Japan, tuna from Ecuador, and herring from Estonia—a menagerie of seafood from around the world, traveling to fill the traps of Atlantic Canada.
On the Gaspereau River, as bald eagles wheel overhead searching for their own harvest of river herring, Gertridge says he’s got an eye on the threat of excess fishing, too. Gaspereau have been overharvested on this river in the past. While fishing has since been reduced, Gertridge wonders what the gaspereau’s increasing popularity as a bait could mean for its long-term survival.
But the sting that’s already being felt is something more subtle: Gertridge always liked that the fish he caught went on to nourish people. While he knows the lobster industry is important for the economic well-being of the region—and, he concedes, selling his catch as bait is easier than sending it to Haiti—it’s bittersweet that what was once an affordable food in one of the poorest countries in the world is now being used to catch a more expensive species.
“I thought it was so great these fish ended up down there. I was so proud of it,” he says. But surveying the bin of glittering herring, he shrugs. “Whatever the market gives you, you have to kind of run with these days.”
Like bait use, market pressures can feel inevitable. But squint and look sideways, and our capitalist system starts to seem a bit more absurd. It produces millions of tonnes of fish waste, even as fish stocks decline, while nudging communities toward dependence on harvesting luxury seafood like crab and lobster, at the expense, in some cases, of the fish underpinning the local ecosystem.
Bait’s role in this system is long obscured by the time seafood ends up on our plates. But the reckoning that’s come for bait is illuminating nonetheless, because it’s posing an opportunity to ask whether, as fish stocks decline, we’d be better off adapting our needs to new species, or possibly repurposing some of the animal parts that are otherwise going to waste. Either way, there’s a deeper query, which is at the heart of debates not just over bait but also other contexts where forage fish are used, such as in aquaculture and agriculture—namely: What is the best use of a fish?
Ultimately, there is no straightforward answer, but it may be, well, everything. Forage fish nourish people and other beings, and—when used as bait—entire industries. It’s why scientists say forage fish are at the pointy end of conversations about how to manage a species for the benefit of all the elements of an ecosystem that depend on it—because with forage fish, so many do. Bait use will continue to be part of that picture. But reducing its share will allow other segments a shot.
In the Bait Masters warehouse in Prince Edward Island, this principle of balance is a survival strategy; MacPhee and Prevost joke that they support their bait-making habit with other activities, including selling fishing gear to local crews. As we pass a shelf of gear in the building’s lobby, Prevost picks up a pack of rubber gloves and examines them wonderingly. “We’ve probably sold, I don’t know, CAN $800 of gloves in the last two days.”
We continue outside, where crews are busy preparing for the imminent opening of the lobster season. A half-dozen captains here have invested in the business and helped with testing, though they generally don’t use the bait themselves; unlike in fisheries in other parts of the region, they haul their traps every day, so wouldn’t benefit from the bait’s ability to last multiple days in the water. This is a reminder of the complexities in engineering a solution to the problem. Prevost introduces me to one of the captains, Billy MacDougall. There’s a festive feel on the wharf he’s standing on—it’s bustling with activity in the pale spring sunshine and the sound of Adele singing “Easy on Me” wafts over the water from a nearby speaker. But when I ask how he sees the future of the fishery, MacDougall is somber.
“Gaspereau seems to be the more common fresh bait now. It’ll take a beating because people will be just going after it all the time,” he says. “It’ll just keep getting passed down to different species of fish until they’re all gone.”
MacDougall hopes to hand his fishing business down to his children, the way he inherited it from his father—but that won’t work, he thinks, if people want to become millionaires on the back of the lobster. It’s a lure that’s difficult to resist, but the future of human communities and ecosystems alike may depend on people not taking the bait.
This article first appeared in Hakai Magazine and is republished here with permission.
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