NEW ORLEANS — This has been the second-coldest spring in the last century, and as a result, brown shrimp have grown more slowly than the U.S. economy. That put the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission in a tight squeeze when setting the dates Thursday for the 2013 inshore shrimp seasons.
On the one hand, if they voted to open the seasons too early, the shrimp wouldn't be big enough for market, but if they elected to wait too long, the shrimp might all move out to the open Gulf, pushed by big spring tides and a blast of cold, fresh water moving down the Mississippi River.
The commission ultimately voted to follow the recommendations of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, presented to the commission by head shrimp biologist, Marty Bourgeois.
In the Barataria Basin, the season will open May 20, which is remarkably late. Last year, the season opened May 7 in the same estuary.
Such an early opening is simply not wise this year, Bourgeois explained. Right now, the median size of the shrimp in the estuary is in the 300- to 400-count range. That means it would take 300 to 400 shrimp that size to make a pound.
Bourgeois predicted that those shrimp would be 100-count in size around May 18.
On the east side of the Mississippi River, including lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne, the department also initially recommended a May 20 opener, but offered a compromise.
"Traditionally, these guys want to see something later," Bourgeois said. "If the commission would prefer to go with (May 27), the department would have no objections."
Commissioner Steven Sagrera questioned whether the zone should open earlier rather than later to harvest the shrimp before the fresh water pushes them out of the lakes.
Bourgeois, however, said that's not advisable.
"If we were to open any earlier than May 20, you'd be looking at unmarketable shrimp," he said. "It would be a waste of the resource."
The current forecast has the Mississippi River cresting at 14 feet in New Orleans on May 18.
The commission ultimately decided to go with the May 27 opening.
In the Terrebonne Basin, the department recommended an opener of May 13 to allow shrimpers to take advantage of a relatively high number of large white shrimp that overwintered in the marshes there.
In that system, there are so many white shrimp that Bourgeois suggested to the commission it might want to immediately open a special season in Lake Pelto and lower Terrebonne Bay.
"We've seen a large move of larger whites into that system along with marketable-sized brown shrimp," Bourgeois said. "(An immediate opener) would provide an opportunity to fishermen to harvest those shrimp while they're there."
The commission consulted with Col. Winton Vidrine, head of the department's Enforcement Division to see if there would be issues with enforcement of such a limited open zone.
Vidrine said shrimpers would have a difficult time determining if they were inside or outside the legal boundary, so the commission rejected the idea, and went with a May 13 opener for the whole estuary.
Farther west, the Vermilion-area season will open on May 13, and the Mermentau/Calcasieu season will open May 27.
Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com