BANGOR, Maine — Regulators with a multistate agency that oversees fisheries issues on the East Coast decided Friday that the shrimp season in the Gulf of Maine will close at the end of Feb. 28.
The season originally had been expected to end April 15, but high landings caused the fishery to reach and then exceed the recommended catch limit weeks ahead of schedule.
Norman Olsen, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, suggested the Feb. 28 ending date during an emergency meeting held Friday by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s northern shrimp section. He said that ending the season at the end of the month represents the best balance between helping out fishermen and processors who depend on shrimp for part of their winter livelihood and making sure that the fishery remains healthy and sustainable in future years.
“Everyone wants to process more and catch more,” Olsen said. “An extra 15 days would have been great, but sustainability is critical.”
According to Maggie Hunter, head of the commission’s northern shrimp technical committee, the recommended landings limit for the shrimp season, which began Dec. 1, is 4,000 metric tons. She said Friday that the estimated landings total so far this season is 4,192 metric tons, or roughly 9 million pounds.
“I think those numbers are going to go up as we get late reports,” Hunter said.
According to Olsen, by some estimates as many as 12 million pounds, or 5,500 metric tons, could be landed before the season draws to a close. Those numbers are roughly one-third higher than the recommended catch limits, he said.
One concern in ending the season early is giving fishermen in eastern Maine adequate access to the shrimp season, which tends to shift from the western end of the Gulf of Maine in December to the eastern end in late winter and early spring, Olsen said. By keeping the season going for another 10 days, he said, Down East fishermen should be able to land some shrimp before the season comes to a close.
Stephen Beathem, an official with Maine Shellfish in Ellsworth, told regulators Friday that fishermen in eastern Maine should be allowed the same chance to catch shrimp as fishermen in western Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
“The fishermen and workers down here will sustain a $250,000 hit [by closing the season six weeks ahead of schedule],” Beathem said. “This is very unfair.”
Maggie Raymond of Associated Fisheries of Maine said that by not implementing a limited entry system into the shrimp fishery, regulators are allowing newcomers to take advantage of a resource that other, long-term shrimp fishermen have been helping to nurture for years.
“This kind of management of the fishery is unacceptable for people who have been in the fishery for 20 or 30 years,” Raymond said. “It’s being pulled out from under them.”
The number of licensed shrimp boats in Maine far outnumbers the combined totals for Massachusetts and New Hampshire. More than 200 licensed shrimp boats in Maine have landed shrimp so far this fishing season — which represents 71 more boats than the 2009-2010 season — while fewer than 30 in Massachusetts and New Hampshire have done so, according to the committee.
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.
According to regulators, shrimp fishermen have been getting about 20 cents more per pound for the their catch this season than they did the prior year, when the average price Maine fishermen got for their catch was 40 cents per pound.