It is almost certain that shrimp caught in the U.S. state of Maine will not be on any menus or in markets this year.
The Maine shrimp (Pandalus borealis), also known as northern shrimp and pink shrimp, had its last commercial season in Maine in 2013.
Back then, dealers paid fishermen an average of USD 1.81 (EUR 1.56) per pound. But since then, the fishery has been closed, aside from a few years of limited catch for research purposes, with very small amounts of pricy shrimp making it to markets. The species thrives in cold water and warming waters in the Gulf of Maine have made life hard on the species, according to scientists.
In 1962, the shrimp sold for USD 0.15 (EUR 0.12) per pound at the dock. By 1995, it was worth USD 0.90 (EUR 0.77) per pound and the fishery was valued at USD 10.7 million (EUR 9.2 million), according to Maine Department of Marine Resources data. Marshall Alexander, a Portland, Maine-based commercial fisherman for six decades, said he used to catch a lot of shrimp on his boat, the De Dee Mae II.
“I used to get three-fourths of my pay catching shrimp,” Alexander said. “I was very good at it. I figured out where they go.”
Despite the fishing moratorium, Alexander said it is his belief there are still shrimp in the gulf waiting to be caught.
“I hope we have a season,” he said.
But things are not looking promising. While northern shrimp in the Gulf of Maine are not extinct, Maine Department of Marine Resources Lead Scientist Maggie Hunter said the species has in dropped abundance by 90 percent. The total biomass index average for 2014-2019 was about 10 percent of the 1984-2013 average, according to a 2019 report.
“Their range has contracted, but they aggregate in schools and they can still be found and caught at a high rate,” Hunter said. “A good fisherman with some luck and some years under his belt will know where to look.”
But a high catch-rate does not mean the stock is abundant, Hunter said. While some think the shrimp are doing better in Canadian waters further north, Nova Scotia data shows steady declines in the population there since 2004, and stocks are down all the way to Newfoundland and Labrador, possibly a result of higher fish predation. Studies of the population in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence area shows mixed results.
While the current moratorium on Maine’s fishery is set to expire in 2021, it is unlikely regulators will support a reopened fishery this year, Hunter said.
“The only new data we have at this time are from the fall 2020 Maine-New Hampshire Inshore Trawl survey, which had the lowest abundance in that survey’s time series, and very little recruitment from the 2020 year-class,” she said.
Dustin Colson Leaning, a fishery management plan coordinator for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, said when regulators meet this winter, they “will consider the results of the 2021 northern shrimp stock assessment update among other biological, economic, and cultural considerations.”
If there happens to be a decision to reopen the fishery, Leaning said, regulators will also need to specify the total allowable catch, the season length, trip limits, and trap limits for 2022, along with consideration for days out of the fishery, and a research set-aside.
“It can feel disheartening to join a conservation effort at all-time population lows and only hear stories about how abundant these species used to be years ago,” Leaning said. “However, there are conservation success stories, such as the rebound of the northern shrimp population after stock collapse in 1978, that inspire me to continue my interest in this species.”
There is a vested interest among scientists, fishermen, and the coastal communities to understand and support northern shrimp — and part of that is understanding the past, he said.
“I would like to study the massive recruitment event that occurred in 2002 ... to learn more about the interplay between environmental conditions, predator pressure, and stock dynamics that allowed for an estimated 36 billion shrimp to recruit to the stock that year," Leaning said.
Maggie Hunter said the shrimp were also scarce in the 1950s, when temperatures were also high in the Gulf of Maine, and said she’s interested in learning more about what might have happened in 2012 and 2013, when the Gulf of Maine stock suddenly shrank. Recently, Hunter a research partner published a paper on the potential impact longfin squid had on the shrimp population in 2013, when they came into the inshore section of the Gulf of Maine earlier than usual. The squid are voracious predators and might have eaten vast amounts of shrimp, affecting the population count, Hunter said.
“It’s all just speculation, though, because there is very little data on the stomach contents of the squid because they thoroughly masticate their food, and there was no assessment of whether the squid were abundant enough to have had that much impact, although they were much more abundant than usual,” she said.
Reporting by Caroline Losneck
Photo courtesy of National Marine Fisheries Service