PORTLAND, Maine — Regulators on Tuesday scrapped the shrimp season in the Gulf of Maine for the first time in more than 30 years after shrimp populations dipped to the lowest levels on record.
The decision by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission came after a harvest last winter that was the smallest since the last shrimp shutdown in 1978. Over the summer, the situation worsened when a shrimp index indicated stocks were at their lowest since the annual trawl survey began in 1984.
"The technical committee concluded that the stock has collapsed. It's the lowest biomass in history," said Terry Stockwell, chairman of the commission's shrimp section.
Part of the problem is a warming ocean and the absence of the normal springtime surge of plankton, the microscopic creatures that make up a critical link at the bottom of the ocean food chain, scientists say. Predation by other fish species and overfishing a few years ago also contributed to the fishery's collapse, they said.
The North Atlantic shrimp provide a small but valuable fishery for hundreds of New England fishermen, with several hundred boats going after them with nets and traps. About 85 to 90 percent of the annual Gulf of Maine harvest is typically caught by Maine boats, with New Hampshire and Massachusetts accounting for the rest.
The fishery has a history of boom-and-bust cycles.
The shrimp harvest averaged about 25 million pounds a year from 1969 to 1972 before falling to under 1 million pounds in 1977, leading to a closure of the fishery a year later. There were similar down cycles in the late 1990s and early last decade. After each bust, the industry had to rebuild after losing customers.
Kim Libby, whose husband fished for lobster last summer and hoped to fish for shrimp this winter, said the decision to close the regulators' decision came as no surprise. That didn't make it any easier, though.
"Let me put it this way: We have no prospects of any income for the winter. With the stocks in such hard shape, we expected it," she said from her home in Port Clyde, where one of her husband's two boats needs repairs.
For now, there's little hope on the horizon.
There are pockets of 4-year-old and 5-year-old female shrimp in some cooler waters off New England, but there are few younger shrimp needed to support the fishery over the next three years, said Stockwell, who also serves as director of external affairs for the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
Spencer Fuller, who serves as shrimp category manager at Cozy Harbor Seafood, a processing plant in Portland, said fishermen and processors were hurting even before the decision.
"The damage started last year," he said, noting that previous weak seasons have reduced catches to the point that markets have dried up in Europe.
If the fishery recovers, then processors will be back in the same boat where they were in after 2000-2001, when they had to lower prices to win back customers.
"All of the work that has been done over the past 12 years is lost, as far as marketing and product development," he said. "It's dire straits."
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