Regulators are considering putting an early end to the New England shrimp season because fishermen are catching too many of them.
Officials with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission have scheduled an emergency phone meeting Friday to consider shutting down the season — possibly next week — for the second year in a row because the harvest is fast approaching the 8.8-million pound target set by scientists last fall.
If the season shuts down early, half a dozen or more companies in Maine will have to stop processing shrimp and hundreds of fishermen will have to tie up their boats.
The harvest has been strong because of a healthy shrimp population, more fishing pressure and stable markets that have resulted in strong prices, said Glen Libby, a shrimp fisherman in Port Clyde and president of the Midcoast Fishermen’s Cooperative, which processes and sells shrimp under the Port Clyde Fresh Catch label.
“For us, it’s a big scramble and we’ve got lots of orders coming in last minute because everyone’s in a panic now, and they want shrimp,” Libby said.
Northern, or pink, shrimp are found in the cold waters of the Gulf of Maine and provide an alternative winter fishery for hundreds of fishing boats. Boats from Maine typically catch about 90 percent of the annual harvest, with small numbers of boats from New Hampshire and Massachusetts catching the rest.
The shrimp population is cyclical and scientists each fall set the season based on shrimp abundance. The fishery boomed in the mid-1990s before declining and eventually bottoming out in 2002 — with most processors and fishermen dropping out of the industry.
But over time, the shrimp numbers have rebounded and processors have rebuilt their markets.
The current 136-day season started Dec. 1 and was scheduled to end April 15, with a recommended maximum catch of 8.8 million pounds. If the harvest hits the target, regulators can call an end to the season as they did last year when they shut it down three weeks ahead of schedule.
This season’s preliminary harvest was pegged at about 7.2 million pounds last Friday. But those numbers are incomplete and will be updated by Friday, said Bob Beal, director of the commission’s interstate fisheries management program.
Boats are catching almost a million pounds of product each week, and Beal said the target could be reached by the end of this week. If the season were allowed to run through April 15, scientists speculate that the harvest for the season could exceed 15 million pounds.
The catch is strong because more boats are going after shrimp this year. Maine officials sold 456 commercial shrimp licenses this year, up from 335 last year. At the same time, prices are about 20 cents a pound higher than last year.
Officials have discussed the possibility of closing the season early next week, late next week or possibly the first week of March.
“We’re hoping we’ll get to mid-March or at least early March because we still have shrimp orders to fill,” Libby said.