When commercial fishers set off to trap blue crabs, they bring along buckets of small, frozen baitfish such as menhaden. They stuff the fish into the traps and lower them into the sea. The stinky, slowly rotting fish carcasses decay underwater, temping the prized crabs to crawl inside the traps.

But catching large quantities of the tiny fish for bait could have grave ecological ramifications. A wide range of predators such as humpback whales, seals and dolphins eat the small prey. “Menhaden are sometimes called the most important fish in the sea,” says Joseph Gordon, manager of northeast U.S. oceans for The Pew Charitable Trusts. They are a key link in the ocean food web.

Appetite for seafood has increased. So has the sale of omega-3 supplements. Both rely on small, oily fish such as menhaden. Not all of the small fish are doing badly, but in the past 20 years the number of menhaden has dropped to about half of what is was in the 20 years prior, according to data from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The commission recently established quotas on menhaden for the U.S. east coast, but Gordon says there is still a need to keep close watch on these and other baitfish species. Worldwide, as much as 40 billion pounds of baitfish are now captured to catch crustaceans such as lobster and crab, according to estimates by Anthony Dellinger, a research scientist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and his colleagues.

To alleviate this ecological strain, Dellinger has helped design an artificial bait the size and shape of a hockey puck that he hopes will replace the need for menhaden and other baitfish used to lure crustaceans. Dellinger’s group makes the calcium-based creation, called OrganoBait, by pouring a mineral-rich mixture into molds, much like a baker pours batter into a cupcake pan. The puck is seeded with engineered scents specially synthesized to mimic the foul smells such as “cadaverine” that are normally emitted by rotting baitfish like menhaden and herring. “It’s not something I would order off of the menu,” Dellinger says. And it is not something that crabs or lobsters eat, either. Rather, it simply attracts them into the traps.

“It is an interesting idea,” says Konstantine Rountos, a marine ecologist at Saint Joseph's College in Patchogue, N.Y. If it works, artificial bait could be more sustainable than live bait, he says.

In 2014 Dellinger and his team began sending OrganoBait to a handful of fishers in Florida, North Carolina, California and the British West Indies to see how it performed. They set around 180 traps, split among blue crab, stone crab and spiny lobster. Half of the traps contained OrganoBait and the other half contained traditional bait, such as menhaden, mullet fish or even pigs’ feet, which some crabbers use. OrganoBait performed as well as the natural bait. For stone crab, it might have even worked better, although due to the small scale of the study the difference was not statistically significant. The findings appeared in the July 2016 issue of Global Ecology and Conservation.

“I believe this one has a chance,” says Mark Pfister, who heads sales and purchasing for the Miami-based Atlantic & Gulf Fishing Supply, one of the largest suppliers of commercial fishing gear in the U.S. One of Pfister’s customers participated in the OrganoBait testing and said it did just as well as regular bait.

Attempts to develop alternative baits go back to the 1970s, says Bob Bayer, who directs the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine. Bayer, who has even tried using chocolate to see what can attract lobster, says it has been very difficult for scientists to come up with alternative baits that work well. They make up only a small proportion of the overall bait supply, says Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association.

The alternative baits on the market rely on natural materials such as ground fishmeal and some have contained preservatives such as formaldehyde. Pfister notes that OrganoBait is totally synthetic: “It’s like comparing apples and oranges.”

Miguel Vazquez Archdale, a fisheries scientist at Kagoshima University in Japan who has studied potential artificial baits, says that for such a product to work, it would have to be cheaper than natural bait. But one advantage of synthetic bait, he notes, is that it reduces the need for costly refrigeration of the baitfish before they are used. “Baits that could be stored at room temperature would save both energy and fridge space,” Vazquez Archdale says.

Dellinger and his colleagues have started a company, Kepley Biosystems, to eventually market OrganoBait, but say they have more testing to do on the product before selling it. If it can be perfected, there might be quite a market; the appetite for crabs and lobster continues to grow. The annual lobster harvest in Maine alone has risen from some 10,000 metric tons in the early 1990s to nearly 55,000 metric tons today, according Bayer. “If you look at the graph,” he says, “it just keeps going up, up and up.”