ELLSWORTH, Maine — Shrimpers are having a whale of a season.
Well, it might not be that huge, but relatively speaking the amount of shrimp being caught in Maine waters and the price it is fetching on the market are both doing well this year, according to officials.
The fishery for northern shrimp is relatively small. The federal catch limit for shrimp is 4,900 metric tons, while the limit for herring, for example, is more than 100,000 metric tons. The 4,900 metric tons is equal to about 10.8 million pounds.
In 2008, northern shrimp accounted for only 4 percent of all the commercial fish species landed in Maine and for only 1 percent of the overall value of those landings, according to the state Department of Marine Resources.
But by most accounts, the fishermen who have gone out for shrimp during the 2010 season, which runs through May 29, have been catching more than they did in 2009’s season.
“They’ve been doing very well,” Terry Stockwell, DMR’s director of external affairs, said Wednesday. “The fishery is strong and the market’s a lot stronger [than it was last year].”
Stockwell said statistics from 2009 and this season so far were unavailable, but verbal reports indicate landings have been high so far this winter, though they may be starting to taper off a bit. He said he has heard informally that the approximate price for shrimp has been higher, too, at around 50 cents or more per pound.
Stockwell said regulators aren’t exactly sure why the 2010 season has been more robust. It could be water temperature or a crop of larger shrimp, he said, but there seem to be more shrimp along most of the coast this year.
“Every year is different,” Stockwell said.
According to DMR statistics, shrimp landings and value have fluctuated greatly over the past several decades. In 1996, nearly 18 million pounds of shrimp were landed in Maine, but by 2002 that number had shrunk to 845,000 pounds. During those intervening years, the average annual price had fluctuated roughly between 80 cents and $1 per pound, but in 2006 and 2007 the average annual statewide price had fallen to around 30 cents per pound. In 2008, Maine landings had risen back to 8.4 million pounds and the state’s average annual price was just below 50 cents.
Randy Cushman of St. George was on his boat towing for shrimp Wednesday afternoon when he was contacted by cell phone. He said when he started out in the 1980s, the price of shrimp was $1 per pound, but by 2007 he was getting less than a third of what he had been receiving. Now, he said, he’s getting about 60 cents per pound, or about 10 cents more per pound than he got in 2009.
Market demand has been low in recent years because of low processing capacity and competition from farmed shrimp, Cushman said, but this year the market demand for wild-caught shrimp has gone back up.
“It’s the best that I’ve seen it in seven years,” Cushman said.
Glen Libby of Port Clyde, who also fishes for scallops, lobster and groundfish, said recently that his shrimp catch this winter has exceeded last year’s. The relative abundance and the decent price are “kind of refreshing,” he said, compared with the other fisheries he participates in.
“It’s the first time in a decade I’ve felt optimistic about the shrimp fishery,” Libby said.
Pat White, a York lobsterman who serves as shrimp section chairman on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, said there’s a slight concern that shrimp landings actually are going too well. If fishermen in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire catch more than the federal limit of 4,900 metric tons — something that hasn’t happened in a while — it could mean that regulators will oppose an experimental summer fishery for shrimp, which fishermen have been calling for in the past several years, he said.
“It’s obviously way ahead of where we were last year, in terms of landings,” White said. “We don’t want too much to be caught. We come up with a total allowable catch for a reason.”
The possibility of an experimental summer shrimp season is the topic of a seminar scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday, March 5, at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum in Rockport.
White said that, despite the relatively small size of the fishery, shrimping has been a good way for fishermen to boost their incomes when not fishing for other species such as groundfish or lobster.
“It’s an awful good fill-in for a lot of guys,” he said.