The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted Friday, Nov. 16, 1018, to cancel the fishing seasons for Maine shrimp through 2021. Credit: Gabor Degre

PORTLAND, Maine — Citing continuing concerns that further fishing could drive the species to extinction, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted Friday to cancel not only the 2019 Maine shrimp season, but the 2020 and 2021 seasons as well.

Commissioners from New Hampshire and Massachusetts supported the closure, while Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, voted no, according to Tina Berger of the commission. DMR spokesman Jeff Nichols said in an email that Keliher would have supported a one-year moratorium.

The closure does not allow for any research quota, Berger said, because “any level of fishing pressure that would increase mortality further would hinder any kind of stock rebuilding.” However, the summer shrimp survey and Northeast Fisheries Science Center trawl surveys will continue to collect data.

“The stock is so low, biomass is so low and recruitment is so down — the 2018 recruitment was 2 billion, and while that sounds like a lot, that’s even below the median,” Berger said. “Their rationale was, ‘Let’s close the resource for three years, and that way if we have a good year for recruitment, it would give that class time to grow into a fishable resource.’”

But Ben Martens, spokesman for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, said Friday that he will be telling fishermen — hundreds of license holders — and board members that the news is likely even more dire.

“What I am communicating to our fishermen is that this is a signal that you should not plan on shrimp as a part of your business plan at any time in the future,” Martens said Friday afternoon.

In October, the commission presented a draft of its Northern Shrimp 2018 Stock Assessment Report, which said the northern (Maine) shrimp stock is depleted, and the biomass is at an all-time low due to high fishery removals and a less favorable environment, according to the draft.

The mortality rate in 2011-12, the last years with shrimp seasons — was very high, and the number of juvenile shrimp has remained “unusually low” since 2010.

Furthermore, the environment in the Gulf of Maine is in flux, with ocean temperatures in the western Gulf of Maine increasing over the past decade and predicted to continue to rise.

“The stock has a low likelihood of ever recovering,” G. Ritchie White, a New Hampshire commissioner, said in October.

“We are backing into a place no fishery has ever gone, and that’s accepting that a depleted state is the new norm,” Mike Armstrong, a commissioner from Massachusetts, said at the time. “I think we’re already there. It could be we could rebuild the stock, but I don’t think we can.”

But Keliher, Maine’s marine resources commissioner and vice chairman of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, said “the most aggressive approach” — a moratorium — “has not worked.”

Shrimp fishermen have argued for years that the surveys done each year to assess the number of shrimp don’t reflect what they see in the waters.

Gary Libby, 62, of Port Clyde fished for shrimp for 40 years until the first year the season was canceled.

Now he runs Port Clyde Fresh Catch, where they process crab.

“I don’t think the surveys they do are comprehensive enough,” Libby said Friday. “I’ll tell you a story. We were talking about it today. A few years ago — quite a few years — six of us caught like 1,200,000 pounds here in Port Clyde. Six boats. We did pretty well. But we had one other guy going who had never shrimped before, and he didn’t have a lot of experience. His biggest day that year was 200 pounds. That goes to show that there can be all kinds of shrimp, but if your gear’s not right or you don’t know what you’re doing, you won’t catch shrimp.”

But Martens said of the three fishermen selected last year to catch shrimp for research purposes, one stopped because “he couldn’t find any shrimp to catch.”

Earlier on Friday, supporting motions by Keliher, the Northern Shrimp Section voted unanimously to establish two working groups, the first “to adjust management strategy in the future to account for climate change, with the goal of informing the section of different strategies that could possibly be used for 2020,” Nichols wrote in the email.

The second will review the existing Gulf of Maine Summer Northern Shrimp Survey, and evaluate ways to improve reliability and efficiency, “including shifting to greater commercial industry involvement in the collection of data,” according to a release from ASMFC.

“His intent with both of these motions was to ensure that the best available science is used to inform a management approach that could best adapt to the environmental changes impacting the Northern Shrimp fishery and provide the best opportunity for a fishery in the future,” Nichols wrote.

Berger said the surveys would help decide whether “it’s worth investing staff time if there’s little hope of recovery.”

Martens said he sees “two slim hopes” for the fishery to return. First, several very cold years in a row could allow shrimp to lay eggs and create a new generation, “but we haven’t seen that happen.” Or a significant effort to obtain new data might return different results.

But neither is likely, which he said is significant for several reasons.

“We haven’t had a shrimp fishery in a long time, so there are not a lot of people banking on it this year, but with all the other things that are going to be hitting Maine’s coastal communities … having a winter fishery like shrimp was really important to a lot of Maine fishermen,” he said. “Losing it is really sad. It was a great part of our heritage that’s going to be gone for at least another three years, and potentially longer. It’s one of the first places you can really point to and say, ‘Climate change is really having an impact on our communities.’”