Say the word “shrimp” and several images surface. To anyone who looks forward to the season when fishermen start hauling them in droves, that one word connotes a sweet, succulent delicacy. To the fishermen who trap or drag for them each winter, it’s a livelihood. To restaurants, it’s one of the most popular items on the menu, year-round.
But right now along the coast of Maine, as well as New Hampshire and Massachusetts, the word shrimp means hardship and loss.
At a December 3 meeting in Portland, state regulators voted to scrap the 2014 shrimp season in the Gulf of Maine. Fishermen had requested to be allowed a quota of 385,000 pounds, less than a third of last season's.
According to Department of Marine Resources scientist Maggie Hunter, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) meets each year to to set the guidelines for the upcoming shrimp season. The attendees consist of three commissioners from each state with an interest in the shrimp industry: Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
Also present is a technical committee of scientists from each state, and an industry advisors panel made up of fishermen and retailers. At the end of the day there are only three votes cast — one from each state. And this year it was unanimous. All were in favor of a shut down.
The decision came after much research about the shrimp population in the Gulf of Maine. The ASMFC's Northern Shrimp Technical Committee, consisting of representatives from Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, compiled a report that provided recommendations based on the status of the shrimp population. The report stated that severe declines had been observed in the last couple years.
Hunter said the decline, coupled with continuing warm water temperatures, makes for a bad outlook for the shrimp fisheries in the near future. A survey over the summer indicated that stocks were were at their lowest level since 1984. The last shutdown was in 1978.
It's hard to find anyone who has a positive reaction to the no-shrimp news. The fishermen are understandably upset, restaurants are bemoaning the lack of a favorite menu item (fried Maine shrimp) and processors who are usually guaranteed a few months of work each winter will be looking for other options. And people who look forward to the delicacy that is usually abundant January through March will be feeling the loss.
Eddie Tibbetts, proprietor of Atlantic Edge Seafood in Boothbay Harbor, said it's a difficult time for fishermen. “This will impact everyone from the fishing industry to the consumer,” he said. “There are around 12 boats that normally bring in shrimp to the two plants in the harbor, three or four of them draggers, the rest trappers.”
“It's going to be hard for fishermen and guys who work here picking shrimp. We usually have five people,” Tibbetts said. He said that he feels equally bad for the truck drivers who drive shrimp to a processing plant in Portland — and the 150 or so people who work there.
Tibbetts said that he thinks the decision to shut it down was extreme. “I understand what they (the fisheries commissioners) are trying to do,” he said. “But I wish they could have given a little more. I wish they could have waited for the shrimp to hatch their eggs and allowed fishing to start in March. It's going to be hard to reestablish the industry after this.”
“If there were no shrimp to catch, they (the fishermen) wouldn't go out,” Tibbetts said. “They're probably not there anyway. They weren't there last year.” He said he wishes the commission had given the fishermen two weeks or a month and kept the quota down.
Kelo Pinkham, who is working at Atlantic Edge Lobster and also fishes for lobster and cod, said it's a sad time for him. “I have been fishing shrimp for over 40 years,” he said. “Ground fishing is way down. I got 12,000 pounds of cod last year and only 1,200 this year. I'd rather be shrimping. It used to be my favorite fishery.
“I haven't missed a year since 1972.”
McSeagull's proprietor Ralph Smith said he'll be taking Maine shrimp off the menu for now. “I was considering replacing it with small gulf shrimp, but there's no consistency in the quality. Sometimes it's too small and sometimes mushy. It's no comparison to Maine shrimp.” But Smith said he's not overly concerned about customers’ reactions. “People will order something else.”
Maggie Hunter attributes the warming ocean temperatures for much of the decline in shrimp. She said that the outlook for the next two or three years isn’t good. “The numbers are not just down a little, they’re down a lot,” she said.
And she stated that shrimping is one of the last industries in the state that has an “open access.”
“Anyone can get a license,” she said.