PORTLAND, Maine — The combination of a healthy shrimp population, favorable weather and stable markets have made for solid shrimp fishing in New England — so solid, in fact, that the season is closing early because fishermen have caught so many of the small, sweet crustaceans.
So far they’ve caught nearly 11 million pounds. That’s the biggest seasonal harvest since 1997. Because the harvest has exceeded the recommended maximum catch, regulators are closing the season Wednesday, more than three weeks earlier than originally planned.
Even so, the shrimp markets have rebounded from last year when the global recession dampened demand, said John Norton, CEO and president of Cozy Harbor Seafood Inc., a seafood processing company in Portland. Last year’s shrimp season began just two months after the financial markets collapsed in October 2008, causing seafood buyers to pull back on their purchases, he said.
“The market was certainly able to handle more volume at a higher price than last year,” Norton said.
This season, which began Dec. 1, marked the continued rebound of the markets for New England shrimp since they collapsed nearly a decade ago after fishing seasons were cut back sharply because of weak shrimp populations.
Northern, or pink, shrimp are found in the cold waters of the Gulf of Maine and provide an alternative winter and spring fishery for scores of New England fishing boats that normally fish for haddock, flounder and other groundfish that live near the ocean bottom.
Boats from Maine typically pull in around 90 percent of the catch with vessels from New Hampshire and Massachusetts taking the rest.
The shrimp are smaller than warm-water shrimp caught in the Gulf of Mexico or grown in shrimp farms worldwide. The New England shrimp industry, however, won’t benefit from the oil spill in the Gulf, where fishing has been shut down in a swath of waters off Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida affected.
Gulf shrimp serves different markets than the smaller cold-water shrimp caught in New England. Gulf fishermen typically harvest more than 200 million pounds a year with another 1.2 billion pounds of warm-water shrimp being imported from shrimp farms in Thailand, Indonesia, Ecuador, Vietnam, China and elsewhere.
Norton said New England is just a blip in the cold-water shrimp market. Cold-water shrimp are found in waters from Norway to New England and along the West Coast from northern California to Alaska.
“Maine this year will be just 10 to 12 million pounds out of a 1 billion pound industry,” he said.
Northern shrimp is a cyclical fishery, and regulators set the season based on shrimp abundance. The fishery — and the markets — crashed about a decade ago when the seasons were cut back because of weakness in the shrimp population.
After it slumped in the late 1990s before bottoming out in 2002, processors and most fishermen dropped out of the fishery for a few years. Norton said he got back into the business in 2004 when the populations started rebounding. Each year since has shown improvement with the exception of last year when the markets again tumbled because of the poor global economy.
Besides the abundant shrimp population, fishermen said they were buoyed by favorable weather conditions this winter.
Vincent Balzano, a third-generation fisherman who fishes out of Portland, said the weather and the markets were markedly better this year than last.
“The ’09 season was my worst season ever,” he said. “When we could catch them, we couldn’t sell them. When we could sell them, we couldn’t catch them.”
The season’s early closure hurts fishermen who planned to continue shrimp fishing through May so they could delay using their quotas for groundfish.
It will also hurt processors. Norton said he won’t be able to fill some orders from retailers and restaurants because he initially thought he’d be getting shrimp through May 29. He will also have to lay off several dozen employees until lobster harvesting season kicks into gear in a couple of months.