ELLSWORTH — With fisheries regulators slated to gather in Portland on Wednesday, a shrimp fishing season in the Gulf of Maine this winter seemed as likely as bipartisan tax legislation in Congress.
The schedule called for members of the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission’s Northern Shrimp Section to meet in the afternoon to establish dates and landings limits for the 2018 season. All evidence suggested that, except for a tiny “research” fishery, the limit, or total allowable catch, will be zero, and there will be no season at all.
According to the commission’s recently released “2017 Stock Status Report for Gulf of Maine, Northern Shrimp,” the resource is in terrible shape. For the past five years (2012 through 2017), the shrimp stock has been at its lowest, both in terms of number and total biomass, over the 34 years that the shrimp population has been surveyed.
Between 2010 and 2016, the number of shrimp reaching harvestable size each year also has been meager and includes “the four smallest year classes on record.” The 2016 class was the “second lowest observed” over the 34-year study period, according to the report.
Prospects for the shrimp resource to rebound in the Gulf of Maine are grim.
Northern shrimp (Pandalus borealis) are a cold-water species. Data collected by scientists working for the University of Maine, NOAA Fisheries, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and elsewhere show that water temperatures in the western Gulf of Maine, prime shrimp habitat, have increased steadily during the past 10 years and, more recently, “reached unprecedented highs,” according to the status report.
In both 2014 and 2015, water temperatures in the gulf were cooler, but last year and again this year, water temperatures rose again and are predicted to continue rising as a consequence of climate change.
“This suggests an increasingly inhospitable environment for northern shrimp,” according to the stock status report.
According to the technical committee report, “short-term commercial prospects for the 2018 fishing season are very poor” and long-term prospects “remain poor with moderate but below average recruitment” in 2016 and very low recruitment observed in 2017.
Long-term trends in environmental conditions have not been favorable for northern shrimp in the Gulf of Maine. This suggests a need to conserve spawning stock biomass to help compensate for what may continue to be an unfavorable environment.
Based on the population data and habitat predictions, the section’s technical advisory panel, meeting Wednesday morning, was expected to affirm the status report conclusions that, “given the continued poor condition of the resource, the poor prospects for a 2018 commercial season and the value of maximizing spawning potential to rebuild the stock,” the shrimp section should “extend the moratorium on fishing through 2018.”
The impact on Maine fishermen of a continued moratorium will be significant, though less so than when the moratorium was first imposed in 2014.
According to the Department of Marine Resources, 158 Maine fishermen, draggers and trappers landed some 563,000 pounds of shrimp worth about $1 million during the 2013 season. Just two years earlier, 311 Maine shrimp fishermen landed 10.1 million pounds of shrimp worth about $7.6 million.
Two decades ago, in 1997, 238 Maine harvesters landed 11.9 million pounds of shrimp worth some $9.7 million.
In 2011, just before the fishery crashed, total Gulf of Maine shrimp landings in the three states that had fisheries — Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts — topped 14 million pounds.