ELLSWORTH — The closure of the northern shrimp fishery through 2024, which the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) announced Dec. 17, extends the existing moratorium on commercial and recreational northern shrimp fishing to a full 10 years.
“Given the continued poor condition of the resource, the extremely low likelihood of being able to fish sustainably, and the value of maximizing spawning potential to rebuild the stock if environmental conditions improve, the [Northern Shrimp] Section determined that a continuation of the moratorium was the best course of action,” the ASMFC stated in announcing the moratorium. Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts manage the resource under the ASMFC’s Interstate Management Plan for Northern Shrimp.
Shrimp fishing in Maine — at one time in the not-too-distant past — yielded thousands of metric tons of the tiny crustacean prized for its flavor (if not the time it takes to shell a pound or two). Primarily fished by trawling, the state’s biggest catch came in 1996, with nearly 9,000 metric tons landed in Maine ports. By 1999, however, that number had dropped to roughly 1,650 tons.
And at the end of 2013, the meager 290 metric tons caught in Maine, with similar fall-offs in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, gave way to the moratorium announced in 2014. The stock had collapsed, regulators said at the time, from overfishing.
The problem is that the shrimp stock has not rebounded after seven years of the moratorium in place.
“Given the current environmental conditions in the Gulf of Maine, the future population projections show little to no growth in the abundance of shrimp,” ASMFC Executive Director Robert Beal told The American. “Without an increase in the abundance, a significant commercial fishery would not be possible.”
Climate change’s warming effect on the Gulf of Maine is hurting the recruitment — the number of fish born within a given time period that survive to the juvenile stage — of the northern shrimp, Beal said.
“The [ASMFC’s] Northern Shrimp Section has maintained a moratorium for the commercial fishery since 2014 and the stock has not rebuilt in the absence of fishing pressure,” Beal said.
Even so, some individuals involved with the shrimp fishery voiced support for reopening a limited commercial fishery or a personal use fishery to help collect data used to evaluate the status of the shrimp stock — and provide economic support to local communities. The ASMFC did not support this, nor did it ultimately allow a two-week, 25-pound-limit recreational fishery because of the “negative impact this would likely have on the stock” and, for the limited recreational fishery, issues including fair access to the resource, monitoring harvest levels and illegal shrimp sales.
But, according to a press release issued by the ASMFC, a work group will continue to evaluate management strategies with a particular focus on developing a recreational fishery for personal consumption.
Shrimp stocks are assessed each summer, although COVID-19 meant that it wasn’t done in 2020. The ASMFC noted that funding for the annual assessment is uncertain and asked the work group to discuss options for maintaining stock assessment updates without the data this survey provides.
The ASMFC’s long-term projection for the shrimp stock showed there was “less than a 1 percent chance the population in 2026 would be greater than the population in 2021 even with zero fishery removals,” Beal said. “If conditions in the Gulf of Maine improve, the projections indicate the population may rebuild. However, climate change and water temperature projections do not predict improved environmental conditions that would support improved shrimp populations.”