PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s shrimp boats traditionally take to the waters of the Gulf of Maine the first week of December. But not this year. And not last year.
In fact, the Northern Shrimp Technical Committee of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission recommends that there not be a shrimp season at all this year.
Concern about depleted stocks and previous years of overfishing pushed the start of the 2011-12 shrimping season back from December to January 3, 2012, for trawlers, who were limited to fishing on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and back to Feb. 1, 2012, for trappers, limited to landings of 1,000 pounds a day.
Regulatory officials also pulled the plug early on the New England shrimp fishery last season, ending it on Feb. 17, 2012, claiming that shrimpers had already exceeded the catch limit of 4.9 million pounds by as many as 1 million pounds. That closure left trawlers with a 21-day season and trappers with a 17-day season.
In a recent 81-page analysis released Nov. 21, the Northern Shrimp Technical Committee recommends a moratorium on shrimp fishing for 2013.
“Given the current condition of the resource (overfished and overfishing occurring) and poor prospects for the near future, the NSTC recommends that the Section implement a moratorium on fishing in 2013,” the report says. “If a fishery is allowed in 2013, the NSTC recommends a highly conservative approach … [including] starting the season after at least 50 percent of shrimp have hatched their brood. In recent years the midpoint of the hatch has been around Feb. 15.
“The NSTC bases its recommendations to the Section on its assessment of current stock status, the biology of the species, and the stated management goal of protecting and maintaining the stock at levels that will support a viable fishery on a sustainable resource. … Short-term commercial prospects for the 2013 fishing season are very poor given the low abundance of all stages of shrimp in the 2012 survey and the relatively small size of females in the 2011 and 2012 surveys.”
Those recommendations will be discussed during a daylong, two-session meeting in Portland on Monday, Dec. 3, at the downtown Holiday Inn by the Bay convention center. The 9 a.m. session involves the Northern Shrimp Advisory Panel and will include a review of the 2011-12 season status report by the Northern Shrimp Technical Committee and its moratorium recommendation. The 1 p.m. afternoon session will involve the Northern Shrimp Section, which includes one representative each from Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
That three-member group will decide at that meeting what the 2012-13 shrimp season will look like — if there is one — after analyzing the technical committee’s report and recommendations from an industry advisory panel.
The Maine shrimping community considers these to be important sessions, as the shrimp fishery is a $70 million industry that employs 1,500 people, from fishermen to those involved in trucking and processing the catch. Of the 256 shrimp boats operating in Gulf of Maine shrimp habitat last year, 225 of those boats were out of Maine, the other 31 out of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Maine boats accounted for 90 percent of the catch, which had a landed value of about 95 cents a pound.
“It’s going to be interesting, as I expect there will be a contentious audience,” said Jim Markos, the general manager of the Ellsworth-based Maine Shellfish Co., which has a wholesale inventory that includes Maine shrimp. “I’ll be there, and I expect to leave with my ears ringing, and I expect to leave disappointed in the length of the season.”
Margaret “Maggie” Hunter is a shrimp specialist with Maine Department of Marine Resources and a member of the NSTC. She said Friday that, no matter what happens at Monday’s meetings, it’s going to be a “hard year” for both shrimpers and shrimp.
Hunter said shrimp thrive in cold waters and that their habitat off the Maine coastline has been heating up in recent years.
“The problem for shrimp is that the water is too warm for them in that section of the Gulf of Maine,” she said. “They are a sub-Arctic species, and this is the southernmost part of their habitat. And for the shrimp here it’s a closed system. The only way out of it is through the southern and eastern parts of the Gulf, and those parts are the warmest parts.”
Hunter said there was a similar Gulf of Maine warming trend in the 1950s, during which Maine shrimp all but disappeared. When that trend reversed after a few years and Gulf of Maine waters became colder, shrimp populations increased dramatically.
“I’m not thinking that shrimp are going extinct here if the warming trend continues,” she said. “If it continues, we won’t have commercial quantities, but I’m not ready to pull the shade on them yet.”