ELLSWORTH, Maine — As Maine fishery officials work to avoid another premature end to the shrimp fishing season, they are hoping new measures enacted this year will be of help.
One of those measures is a requirement for all shrimp dealers in Maine to provide the Department of Marine Resources with reports every week about the amount of shrimp landings they have received. But according to DMR’s top administrator, only half the dealers have reported their landings to regulators since the season began on Jan. 2.
“Only 49 percent of the dealers have responded” to official reminders about the reporting requirement, Acting DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher said Wednesday.
Keliher said if regulators continue to feel that reports are coming in too slowly, they can close the fishery temporarily. This would give them time to collect reports and to come up with a more accurate estimate of landings before allowing fishing to continue.
This winter’s total allowable catch set by federal regulators for Gulf of Maine shrimp is 4.2 million pounds, Keliher said. That limit is less than half of what it has been in recent years.
Before this winter, only state-licensed shrimp dealers had to file reports, and they only had to do so once a month. But in each of the past two years the amount of shrimp harvested in the Gulf of Maine by fishermen from Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire has far surpassed the total allowable catch set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
In 2010, shrimp fishermen from the three states harvested more than 13 million pounds, even though federal regulators had set a limit of roughly 10.8 million pounds. In 2011 the limit was reduced to 8.8 million, but still shrimpers brought about 13 million pounds ashore before it was all added up.
Because of those high landings, the season was closed three weeks early in 2010 and last year it was shut down six weeks ahead of schedule. About 90 percent of shrimp caught in the Gulf of Maine is caught by Maine vessels and brought ashore in Maine, according to officials.
Despite the lag in landings reports, Keliher said the season so far seems to be relatively slow. As a result, he has extended quitting time for fishing hours on fishing days by two hours, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. In an effort to extend the season later in the year, and to give eastern Maine more of a chance to catch the migratory crustacean, fishing is only allowed on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays this winter.
“We’ve had to commit to micromanaging this fishery due to the low [catch limit],” Keliher said.
He said the incomplete preliminary estimates DMR has indicate that between 450,000 pounds and 900,000 pounds of shrimp have been caught so far this season.
Sorrento fisherman James West said this week that’s he’s currently getting $1 per pound for shrimp he catches — a price that, if it holds through the end of the season, will be the highest shrimp fishermen have gotten for their catch in 10 years. But the migratory crustacean has yet to congregate in significant numbers off Down East Maine, he added.
“There’s not a lot of shrimp down here yet,” West said. “I’m afraid by the time they show up in Frenchman Bay, the season will be over.”
But Port Clyde fishermen Glen Libby said Wednesday that he is confident that the new conservation measures this winter will help make the season last longer and will give more Maine fishermen the chance to catch shrimp.
“We’re not seeing fantastic numbers” in the midcoast area, he said. “I’m fairly optimistic we’ll be able to stretch this out.”
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 fishermen got for their catch fluctuated roughly between 70 cents and a little more than $1 per pound.
By 2006 and 2007 the average annual statewide price that fishermen were paid for shrimp had fallen to less than 40 cents per pound. Since then, fishermen have earned on average between 40 cents and 55 cents per pound.
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at billtrotter.