ELLSWORTH — Fishermen barely outnumbered representatives of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission last Thursday at a public hearing in City Hall on proposed rule changes that would reshape shrimp fishing in the Gulf of Maine.
Three fishermen — John Williams and Ricky Trundy, both of Stonington, and James West of Sorrento — offered comments on a proposed amendment to the ASMFC fisheries management plan for northern shrimp. Department of Marine Resources External Affairs Director Terry Stockwell and Resource Management Coordinator Trisha Cheney dutifully recorded those comments on behalf of the ASMFC.
Stockwell serves as DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher’s representative on the multi-state fisheries management group. He plans to retire at the end of the month after 21 years at DMR and Cheney will assume his role.
Although a somewhat larger crowd was on hand for a hearing the previous evening in Augusta, the sparse audience reflected the state of the fishery from Downeast waters. It also is a reflection of the fact that there has been no commercial shrimp fishery in the Gulf of Maine since ASMFC shortened the season in 2013 and imposed a complete fishing moratorium before the 2014 season.
For more than a decade, ASMFC managed the fishery by establishing a total allowable catch (TAC) for the entire fishery based on assessments of the size and reproductive success of the shrimp resource that was adjusted annually. As the shrimp resource declined, so did the TAC — and the fishery.
As recently as five years ago, according to ASMFC, 327 boats participated in the shrimp fishery — 295 of them from Maine, the rest from either New Hampshire or Massachusetts. Maine fishermen landed some 4.8 million pounds of shrimp (about 90 percent of the total landings) worth just under $4.6 million. For the past four years, there has been no TAC and no fishing.
After ASMFC adopts its new rules, Stockwell said, there might be a tiny TAC available to Maine fishermen in 2018.
“If we get 300 tons of shrimp next year, that would be great,” he said.
ASMFC is considering several possible rule changes in what is officially known as Amendment 3 to the shrimp management plan. Primary among them are a shift in the plan’s stated objectives to manage the shrimp stock to support a viable fishery and provide for more state-level management of the fishery. Changing environmental conditions — warming waters in the Gulf of Maine — also would be taken into account in scientific assessments of the shrimp resource, recognizing that “it’s a temperature-driven fishery,” Stockwell said.
Other changes would allow quicker access to peer-reviewed scientific data used to modify the computer models used to estimate the state of the shrimp resource.
Using the latest science “could be good or bad,” Trundy said. “We may not like it, but at least it’s current.”
Among the biggest sticking points in the amendment are how the annual TAC would be allocated among Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts and whether any “payback” would be required for exceeding the TAC.
Options range from setting a single quota for the entire fishery and dividing it between trawler and trap fishermen to setting up a state-by-state allocation. That allocation would give as much as 91 percent of the TAC to Maine (about the state’s share of the fishery between 2001 and 2010) or as little as 80 percent. Unused quota from one state might be used as a credit against overages from another state, or could be added to Maine’s quota at some point during the season.
Payback proposals range from doing nothing — the current rule — to requiring payback if the excess landings reached a certain minimum level.
The response to each of the proposals was complicated by a number of factors.
Historically, shrimp arrive off Midcoast Maine much sooner than they reach Downeast waters. That can mean there is little quota still available for trawler fishermen like West even though there are plenty of shrimp around. Another issue is a proposal to allocate 13 percent of the state’s TAC to the trap fishery and 87 percent to trawlers. In the last 10 years of the fishery, trap fishermen caught as little as 4 percent and as much 22 percent of the total Maine landings. In 2013, the last year fishing was allowed, trappers landed just 7 percent of the shrimp.
“There were quite a few years they didn’t get near 13 percent,” West said. “Anybody east of Stonington,” who trapped shrimp, “didn’t catch enough to eat.”
One theme throughout the hearing was the need for ASMFC to expand the area of its annual winter shrimp survey and to force Massachusetts and New Hampshire to implement sampling programs. Currently, winter sampling focuses on the area around Port Clyde on the Midcoast.
“We need to have a survey down here,” West said. “I’d like to see if there are any shrimp around here in February and March. That’s when they’re around here.”
Trundy said he was worried about how the long break in shrimp fishing would affect the future.
“There are people on the island (Deer Isle) that will probably never set a shrimp net again,” he said. “Where does that leave the 25-year-olds?”
The ASMFC has adopted an aggressive timeline for completing the amendment process. Ideally, Stockwell said, the commission’s shrimp section will review public comments this summer, choose management measures, and have the amendment in place in time to possible allow some fishing in 2018.
“We may not have a fishery this year,” Stockwell said, “but if we don’t we’ll have one next year.”