Maine fishermen get their shrimp season, though ‘a nightmare’ for some

Freshly caught shrimp are processed at the Port Clyde Fresh Catch processing facility in Port Clyde in February 2011.
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Freshly caught shrimp are processed at the Port Clyde Fresh Catch processing facility in Port Clyde in February 2011.
Posted Dec. 03, 2012, at 9:54 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 04, 2012, at 12:21 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Despite calls to shut down the shrimp fishery in 2013 because of fears it is being overfished, Maine fishermen will have their season — though a very abbreviated one.

The catch limit for shrimp trawlers in the Gulf of Maine will be reduced to 625 metric tons in the 2013 season, nearly a quarter of what it was this year, and boats will only be able to go out fishing on Mondays and Wednesdays. The season for trawlers will begin on Jan. 22, while the season for shrimp trappers will begin Feb. 5, with six landing days and an 800-pound limit.

The decision to limit the catch was made by the three-member Northern Shrimp Section of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission during a Monday afternoon meeting in Portland.

Six hundred and twenty-five metric tons is equal to nearly 1.4 million pounds. Given there are roughly 250 shrimp boats operating in the Gulf of Maine — about 225 of those are from Maine — that catch around 2,000 pounds a trip, that means the catch limit could be reached in a matter of days, said Angelo Ciocca, president of Nova Seafoods in Portland. Last season, fishermen received about 95 cents a pound for their shrimp catch.

“Six hundred and twenty-five is effectively no season,” Ciocca said. “It’s a nightmare.”

The decision by the panel was greeted with mixed feelings from the audience of about 50 people, consisting mostly of fishermen and seafood processors and dealers.

Gary Libby, a fisherman in Port Clyde and chairman of the Northern Shrimp Section’s Advisory Panel, said the season was “crumbs.” He and the Advisory Panel had recommended a catch limit of around 800 metric tons.

David Osier, owner of Osiers Seafood in South Bristol, stood up to address the Northern Shrimp Section, which consists of representatives from Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, after they made their decision. “I want to thank you for the season that you’ve given us,” he said. “We’ll be able to buy some groceries this winter, but that’s about it.”

Despite the sarcasm, most everyone agreed that a season — no matter how short — is better than no season at all, which is what the Northern Shrimp Technical Committee recommended in an 81-page analysis released Nov. 21.

“The season crafted for us guys in Port Clyde actually gives us something,” Libby said. “We were looking at nothing before that with the recommendation from the Technical Committee.”

Marshall Alexander, a fisherman from Biddeford who has been fishing for 46 years, has lived through previous shutdowns, the last being in the 1980s. He said the damage a moratorium does to a fishery is significant, as the processors and infrastructure that supports that fishery deteriorates. “What it cost to bring [the fishery] back is ungodly,” he said.

Next year’s season, though short, will keep at least the small processors busy providing shrimp to the local markets, which is important, he said. “To take Maine shrimp right off the menu would be devastating, because once they replace it with something else, you never get it back. So if [the season] just takes care of that, that is something,” he said.

Jeff Mills, a fisherman from Spruce Head, said processors were the industry’s “bread and butter” and to lose them would be devastating. “We can catch them, yes. Shrimp are easy to catch, but we can’t rely on ourselves to get rid of them.”

Ciocca said his business hired approximately 60 people each winter to handle the shrimp season. He said he would still process shrimp this winter, but those jobs will likely only be created for a week or so. “The question is, will people show up for that short period of work, because they’re seasonal people,” he said. “I’ll be finding that out over the next couple weeks.”

Pat Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources and a member of Maine’s delegation to the Northern Shrimp Section, also believes it was important to keep the fishery going, even with a very restricted catch limit.

“If we stopped altogether catching Maine shrimp, those shrimp are going to be replaced by Asian shrimp that are grown in aquaculture facilities or they could be replaced by [shrimp] from Canada,” he said. “I think it’s important to ensure that we don’t lose these little niche markets.”

Keliher actually had proposed a higher catch limit of 700 metric tons, but his proposal was voted down by New Hampshire and Massachusetts, who supported the 625-metric ton limit.

With the season so short, the fear is that too many shrimp will be landed too quickly, depressing the price and overloading the state’s processing capabilities.

“There’s really no way we can make a season out of this,” said Spencer Fuller, the shrimp manager at Cozy Harbor Seafood. “But to take this and not stretch it out as long as possible, it would just be more bad on bad.”

Fuller continued: “There’s going to be pain all around, but the best thing for the markets — the best thing I believe for this state is to stretch this out just as far as you can. If you lump it up, it’s so fragile. … If there’s 100 pounds left on a wharf someplace, what market there is or price there is is just going to be deteriorated. I’m not big in favor of regulating the fisheries for markets, but in this instance it’s very, very sensitive to what these landings are on a per day basis.”

The Northern Shrimp Section held off on issuing further restrictions, such as a trip limit or forcing boats to have their nets on board and secured by 1 p.m., until they have better information about what the catches look like.

However, Libby thinks the short season will create a “de facto trip limit” since fishermen will only bring in what they know they can sell. “If I can’t sell shrimp product, I sure as hell don’t want to kill it. I want to fish as much as the next guy, but I do want to see this fishery recover, too.”

The reduction in shrimp landings is not thought to be solely the fault of overfishing. The environmental conditions in the Gulf of Maine, which has increased in temperature over the last several decades, are thought to be a factor, as well.

Keliher was hesitant to respond to a question of what happens next year if the trend continues.

“I don’t even want to speculate right now,” he said. “This day was hard enough without speculating on next year. If the trend in water temperature continues, we’re going to be potentially in a worse place next year because what we do as far as directed mortality from fishing will not make a difference.”

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