BAR HARBOR — The current moratorium on commercial shrimp fishing in Maine is set to end soon, but there’s no certainty that the fishery will reopen.
Because of a depleted stock, the seasonal fishery has been closed since 2014 and the current three-year closure is set to run until the end of 2021. The most recent assessment of the fishery was done in 2019.
“At that point in time, abundance, biomass, predation pressure, environment conditions – all of those – pointed pretty negatively,” said Dustin Leaning, a fishery management plan coordinator at the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission.
The ASMFC is scheduled to conduct another stock assessment this fall. Regulators will likely meet in November or December to talk about how to go forward.
Historically, the northern shrimp provided a small but valuable fishery for New England in the winter, when egg-bearing females moved into inshore waters and lobstering slowed down.
The crustacean lives in the cold waters of the Northern Hemisphere. The Gulf of Maine is the southernmost reaches of its range on the Atlantic coast. The species is hermaphroditic. It first matures as a male at about 2.5 years before transforming into females about a year later.
The commercial fishery started in the late 1950s and peaked in 1969 when fishermen hauled in 28.3 million pounds. Over the next decade, landings started to fall and the fishery collapsed in 1978.
It reopened the next year and landings became steady again in the 1990s. By the early 2000s, landings began to drop again, reaching the lowest levels since the 1978 closure. The seasons became more and more restrictive and, when the shrimp failed to create new generations, a fishery moratorium was put in place in 2014. It hasn’t been lifted since.
Regulators have seen some changes in the fishery but overall the number of new baby shrimp remains low.
“We’re definitely seeing very little for young ones coming along,” said Maggie Hunter, a marine resource scientist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
Exactly why the northern shrimp struggles to survive isn’t clear, but there are connections with rising sea temperatures.
“It’s been shown that ocean sea floor temperatures in the Gulf of Maine are linked to low levels of recruitment and low levels of biomass,” Leaning said.
The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the rest of the world’s oceans, which is not a good sign for the return of the shrimp. It’s not clear why they need the cold, but the population has risen and fallen with changes in the ocean’s temperatures.
“It’s possible for them to recover, but I think temperatures would have to get cooler for that to happen,” Hunter said.
The fishery was more of a Midcoast thing than a Downeast thing, but historically there have been lobstermen who trapped or trawled for shrimp out of Stonington, Southwest Harbor and Winter Harbor, she added.
Fred Backman, a Winter Harbor fisherman, used to shrimp and was one of the few locals who had the chance to test out the fishery again as part of a sample survey a few years back.
He felt that the state should open it back up to see what’s out there.
“The shrimp are around,” he said. “You’ve just got to find them.”
Backman said he knew of lobstermen pulling shrimp up in their traps and felt that past surveys weren’t widespread enough to get a solid handle on what the population is like. He wished that regulators, if they do decide to reopen the fishery, would do it with enough lead time so both fishermen and buyers could prepare.
“You’ve got to let the fishermen know ahead of time so they can get ready,” he said.
But what will happen with the fishery in 2022 remains up in the air. There have been discussions about opening it up to see how it fares. Leaning said regulators want to make sure that the species will not only be able to make it, but that it’s also always worth the fishermen’s time.
“You want to make sure that there’s ample fish for them to catch,” he said.