ELLSWORTH — State and federal fisheries regulators have imposed a moratorium on shrimp fishing in the Gulf of Maine for the fourth consecutive season because of “the depleted condition of the resource.”
Meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., last Thursday, Northern Shrimp Section of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission extended the current moratorium on commercial fishing for the 2017 fishing season that would, if fishing were allowed, begin Dec. 1.
The Section also approved a 116,845 pound (53 metric ton) “research set aside” to scientists to continue to collect important biological data about the size of the shrimp population and where the shrimp are located. As a practical matter, that means 15 fishermen chosen by lottery from among those who apply will have a chance to harvest, and sell, a few shrimp. Preference will be given to individuals in the lottery using specific gear designed to limit the catch of small shrimp and who were active in the shrimp fishery June 7, 2011.
According to the scientific evidence, the news for Northern shrimp, and the fishermen who made a living chasing them in winter, is grim.
In 1969, Maine fishermen landed more than 24 million pounds of shrimp. Total landings, including those in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, totaled more than 28 million pounds.
After a steady decline, landings surged to 17.9 million pounds in Maine (21 million pounds overall) during the 1996 season that ran from December 1995 through April 1996.
During the truncated 2013 season, the last before the moratorium, Maine shrimp landings were just over 639,000 pounds.
According to the ASMFC, the latest stock status report for Gulf of Maine northern shrimp indicates that measures of both abundance and biomass volume over the past four years “are the lowest on record” for the 33 years during which the surveys have been done.
Recruitment indices for the 2010-15 year classes — the measure of how many shrimp hatched during each of those years are reaching fishable size — “are also poor and include the three smallest year classes on record.”
As a result, the 2012-16 measures of harvestable biomass are the lowest on record and the current harvestable biomass is almost entirely composed of shrimp hatched in one year, 2013.
The shrimp quota set aside for “research” this year is more than twice the research set aside allowed last year and about four times the amount recommended by the shrimp section’s scientific committee.
“By increasing the 2017 RSA, the Section sought to strike a balance between providing limited fishing opportunities to the industry while collecting valuable data to allow for the continued monitoring of the northern shrimp resource,” Section Chair Dennis Abbott of New Hampshire said last week in announcing the moratorium.
According to fisheries scientists, recruitment of northern shrimp is related to both the number of shrimp in the water available to spawn (reproduce) and to ocean temperatures. A bigger spawning biomass and colder temperatures lead to better stronger recruitment
That knowledge offers little comfort. Ocean temperatures in western Gulf of Maine shrimp habitat have increased over the past decade and reached unprecedented highs within the past several years.
“This suggests an increasingly inhospitable environment for northern shrimp and the need for strong conservation efforts to help restore and maintain a fishable stock,” according to the ASMFC.