SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Maine shrimp fishermen and seafood processors told regulators Thursday that thousands of jobs are at risk because of reduced catch limits. The lower limits threaten to prevent them from meeting demand for their product.
“This fishery in the winter is everything,” Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, told a panel of regional regulators, adding that 84 percent of shrimp fishermen are also lobstermen. “It’s essential to our coastal economy.”
As a result of the more restricted haul, those in the Maine shrimp industry have said, consumers will turn to Canada and China for shrimp, potentially for years. But some members of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Northern Shrimp Section argued that allowing higher limits could decimate the shrimp population to dangerously low levels, especially as the stock has been overfished in recent years.
The section met Thursday morning in a packed ballroom at the Marriott at Sable Oaks in South Portland. The regional panel had set a 2012 catch limit of 2,000 metric tons (4.4 million pounds) and has delayed the start of shrimp season by a month for trawlers and nearly two months for trappers — a staggered start that itself was described as unfair by members of the nearly 200-person crowd.
Pat Keliher, acting commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources and member of the Northern Shrimp Section, made a motion to increase the harvest limit to 3,000 metric tons (6.6 million pounds). But he was the only panel member to vote in favor of the change and it failed. A subsequent motion to increase the limit to 2,211 metric tons (4.9 million pounds) was supported unanimously.
“If we take 3,000 this year, we’re going to pay the price going forward,” said Ritchie White, a New Hampshire representative on the panel. “And I don’t think the fishermen want that. I think they want a fairly stable fishery. … If we keep this [2,000 metric ton] limit this year, hopefully the stock will recover some and we’ll have a bigger haul next year.”
However, the bump to 2,211 metric tons isn’t enough, said John Norton, owner of Portland shrimp processor Cozy Harbor Seafood.
“It’s not going to have an impact,” Norton told the Bangor Daily News after the three-hour meeting. “Best-case scenario, it’s going to allow one more week of fishing. Worst-case scenario, it will allow one or two more days of fishing.”
According to a coalition of shrimp fishermen and processors, the shrimp fishing season typically starts in December, but started this month for trawlers and will begin on Feb. 1 for trappers. Maine fishing boats catch more than 85 percent of the shrimp caught in New England, and the industry supports 1,500 jobs from fishing, processing and dealing, according to the coalition, which calls itself Save Our Shrimp.
Save Our Shrimp lobbied the panel to increase catch limits for 2012 based in part on a study by University of Massachusetts fisheries scientist Dr. Steven Cadrin, who told section members a harvest of 4,500 metric tons (9.9 million pounds) would be sustainable. Save Our Shrimp representatives told the regulators they collected more than 1,500 signatures on a petition in favor of a higher catch limit.
“The fleet we have in the state of Maine will not survive another downturn,” Biddeford shrimp fisherman Marshall Alexander told the panel. “The little bit we need I think can be given.”
Cadrin said Thursday the traditional statistical assumptions used in the regulators’ formula are faulty, in particular that the shrimp natural mortality rate should be tracked at 0.6 percent instead of the 0.25 they had been using.
Simply put, the discovery of more shrimp in the stomach contents of larger fish, a factor in devising the natural mortality rate, suggests there are more shrimp in the overall population than previously assumed, Cadrin said.
But Maggie Hunter, head of the commission’s northern shrimp technical committee, said during past decades when the shrimp stock was considered more healthy, average catch limits were 3,700 metric tons. She said the committee is recommending against adopting Cadrin’s statistical assumptions and is backing the 2,000 metric ton cap.
Other members of the section panel Thursday admitted concerns about increasing the 2012 catch limit after the 2011 harvest exceeded that year’s cap of 4,000 metric tons by almost 2,000 metric tons. Members of the regulatory group acknowledged Maine’s efforts since then to improve its tracking of harvest numbers this season and beyond, but argued the damage to the stock had been done with last year’s overfishing. Beginning this season, all shrimp dealers in Maine have to report landings once a week, rather than just once a month, in order to keep better track of the overall landings.
“The technical committee feels that taking a higher-than-average catch in a lower-than-average abundance is very risky,” Hunter told section members.
The board members voted unanimously to revisit their management plan formula moving forward, however, given Cadrin’s study of the traditional biological reference points and the supporting testimony given by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute scientist Dr. Michael Sissenwine.
Norton said the section’s acknowledgement that their data need revision, despite continuing to use it in developing catch numbers for this season, adds insult to injury for the Maine shrimp group.
“They know the model is not working properly,” Norton, who spoke on behalf of Save Our Shrimp, said after the meeting. “They ignored the peer review that showed how to make it work, and then they crucified us on that same cross.”