HomeIndustryDespite Setbacks, Local Bait Producer Moving Forward

Despite Setbacks, Local Bait Producer Moving Forward

Prince Edward Island-based Bait Masters Inc. has found other avenues of business since its most popular alternative bait hit an insurmountable regulatory hurdle, but the life of a bait producer still comes with some struggles.

Mark Prevost and Wally MacPhee started Bait Masters in 2017 to provide alternative bait products to the Atlantic Canadian crustacean fishery with the invention of the “Bait Sausage.” While its traditional bait sausage is made of a blend of dehydrated herring and mackerel with fish oils, the duo came up with what they called their best bait to date — seal.

“[It was] our most popular bait ever and for political reasons, we can’t do it,” said Prevost.

Bait Masters went toe-to-toe with the American Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which prevents the sale of any products made from marine mammals, such as whales, walrus or seals. By way of the MMPA, marine mammals are not allowed to be included anywhere in the value chain of products, either. This means that a lobster harvester baiting their catch with seal meat would not be allowed to sell their catch across the border, so as not to run afoul of U.S. legislation.

“I sent a letter to the Minister of Fisheries. I got a letter back saying, ‘Don’t do it.’ Really, there’s nothing illegal about us doing it, but it could impact the trade of lobster with the Americans, and I don’t want to hurt the industry,” said Prevost. “I can’t risk the Americans all of a sudden saying they’re not going to buy Canadian lobsters because we’re making bait out of seal by-product.”

Prevost said there were a lot of positives to his seal-based product, besides its popularity and tested effectiveness. He said that his bait was eco-friendly, as it is made from the unused parts of already harvested seal.

“I think there’s 50 or 60,000 pounds of seal byproduct in freezers that’s just going to go to the landfill, if it hasn’t already,” said Prevost.

Prevost went as far as preparing a risk assessment in partnership with Dr. David Groman, Section Head of Aquatic Diagnostic Services at the University of Prince Edward Island and Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust, a wildlife pathologist at UPEI. The findings of the report indicated that the risk of seal pathogens being found in a Bait Master product was very low.

These findings, however, do not stand up to scrutiny under the U.S. MMPA. A letter Prevost received from the former Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray said as much.

“While Canada does not restrict the use of seal product as bait, it is unfortunate that the U.S. MMPA import provi-sions place such restrictions on fish and seafood products bound for the U.S. market. Seals are an abundant, renewable, natural resource that I believe should be harvested and used to its fullest potential,” wrote Murray. “Accordingly, I will raise the importance of full utilization at my next meeting with my U.S. counterpart at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, emphasizing how the MMPA actually undermines this in the case of the use of seals as bait.”

With their seal idea dead in the water, Bait Masters has gone on to other alternative bait ventures. As the largest alternative bait provider in Canada, Prevost and MacPhee have begun to manufacture alternative bait for other companies. While their most popular bait they still sell is their herring/mackerel blend, Bait Masters fulfills custom orders from a wide array of material, such as silver sides and crab meal by-products.

Bait Masters also sinks a lot of time and resources into research and development in the alternative bait market. Prevost said that bait, being an unregulated industry, allows for bait manufacturers to take liberties with the quality of the bait that they produce. In light of this, he claimed Bait Masters products go through a qualitative risk assessment before the product can be sold to consumers.

“There’s already bait in the water, that I know because we’ve done risk assessments on certain ingredients, that don’t pass. We can’t use them,” said Prevost. “But because the other companies are not regulated, they’re using them. Using any Pacific or South Pacific in Atlantic waters; there’s a risk. For example, Japanese mackerel. Some of it, but not all of it, has radioactive content. Do you want to put that in the waters here in Newfoundland or Nova Scotia or P.E.I.? We could put that through a risk assessment, and it would fail.”

Currently, the largest threat that Prevost can see for Canadian bait manufacturers is the country’s reliance on imported bait. Since Canada placed a moratorium on mackerel and herring in 2022, he said there are more imports coming in from Norway and Iceland than ever before.

“With the mandate on mackerel and herring — the reduction in quotas — that it would be a great opportunity for al-ternative bait, but there’s actually less because there’s so much stuff coming into Canada from Norway and Ice-land,” said Prevost. “When we got into the alternative bait game, it’s because we anticipated shortages, but there really isn’t.”

Prevost said that while there are things the government could do about the problems he has faced, whether that be America’s hardline position on the MMPA, the lack of regulation in the bait industry or the large influx of imported bait coming into the country, he has seen more talk than action. While he said he has had federal politicians visit his facility in Nine Mile Creek, P.E.I., the end result usually amounts to a photo op.

“Maybe politics and fishing don’t mix,” said Prevost.