PORT CLYDE, Maine — In a good shrimp fishing season, the fish processing room at Port Clyde Fresh Catch would be a noisy hive of activity on a weekend morning in December.
But the clean, cold room was empty of both fish and people on Saturday morning, just days after regulators from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Northern Shrimp Section shut down the Gulf of Maine shrimp fishery for the first time in 35 years.
Glen Libby, a longtime fisherman and a founder of the community-supported fishery, said that he had just three 1-pound bags of frozen shrimp remaining for sale from last year’s harvest.
“The last shrimp. That’s pretty sad, isn’t it?” he asked, displaying one bag of the tiny, tasty pink morsels.
Last winter, Maine shrimpers hauled in 268 metric tons of shrimp — a sharp plummet from the 2,185 metric tons that they’d brought in during the 2012 season. During the 2010 and 2011 seasons, fishermen brought in more than double that, with hauls topping 4,500 metric tons, according to data from the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
Regulators limited the 2013 catch in hopes that the shrimp stock would bounce back, but that hasn’t happened, according to scientists and many, though not all, fishermen. Some believe that the shrimp are out there, with politics the main detriment to catching them. But Libby said that’s just not the case. Fishermen couldn’t even catch the small amount they were allowed last winter.
In 1978, regulators declared a moratorium on shrimp fishing after annual catches of more than 11,000 metric tons dropped off to 400 metric tons in 1977.
“If there’s plenty of shrimp, I don’t know where they are,” he said, adding that the decision to shut down the fishery came as no surprise. “Two years ago, we landed close to 600,000 pounds in Port Clyde. Last year it was 15,000 pounds. You could see what was going on. They just weren’t there.”
Port Clyde Fresh Catch, which was created six years ago in large part to support the village’s remaining fleet of fishing boats, will need to adapt this year, switching its winter focus from shrimp to crab. Libby said he’s also looking for more community supported agriculture programs to partner with, in an effort to get the Maine-caught fish to more customers.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Libby said. “Getting the crab is problematic in the wintertime. It’s a lot easier to get shrimp in the shrimp season.”
Ben Martens, the executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association in Topsham, said that just over 200 Mainers fished for shrimp last winter out of the more than 500 people who hold shrimp fishing licenses.
“A lot of people had their fingers crossed that we were going to get a season out of shrimp,” he said. “Hopefully, people weren’t overly relying on it. But some people were forced into the corner of relying on it. We’ll probably see people leaving lobster traps in the water longer than we normally would.”
Record warm temperatures in the Gulf of Maine for several years have stressed the shrimp, which are at the southern end of their range here. Warmer waters also have driven off the phytoplankton that shrimp eat and attracted more of their predators, including hake and squid, to the area.
According to Carla Guenther, a fisheries scientist and leadership adviser at Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington, shrimp live about five years in a range that extends from the Gulf of Maine to Iceland. They are heavily dependent on cold water for reproductive success, and current research is showing that the remaining shrimp that can be found in waters off the Maine coast are troubled.
“Shrimp change their sex as they grow older,” she said. “They change from males to females normally at age three. The shrimp sampling this year showed there’s lots of 4-year-old males, a suggestion that they’re a stressed populace.”
But Guenther and others acknowledge that when discussing fisheries, the only constant is that there will be disagreement. Marshall Alexander of Biddeford, who has caught shrimp for more than 40 years, thinks that the real problem is that fishermen in New Hampshire and Massachusetts want too many shrimp.
“This has become a political thing, OK? It has nothing to do with shrimp management,” he said. “The problem is all politics.”
But Guenther said that cold weather — not politics — will be the biggest help in bringing the shrimp back to Maine. She thinks it’s likely they’ll return, though no one can predict when.
“We’ll need a few good years,” she said. “I’m one of the last ones to say I need a good harsh winter. But the shrimp do. They want one.”