The small reddish-orange shrimp appear briefly in mid-winter in fish markets, a favorite served as a holiday appetizer. But the period that these sweet-tasting shellfish can be purchased will likely get shorter.
These are Gulf of Maine northern shrimp, Pandalus borealis, the only locally harvested shrimp. Their slightly tacky texture when served raw as “Ama Ebi” makes them popular in sushi restaurants.
They are caught by a handful of boats from Gloucester and New Hampshire with the center of the fishery, involving more than 275 boats, off the coast of Maine.
As federal restrictions on Gulf of Maine cod and other groundfish have tightened, fishermen have increasingly turned to catching northern shrimp. The pressure on the stock has risen, surpassing the catch limit in weeks and forcing the fishery closed almost before it opens in recent years.
The 2012 fishery surpassed the 4,000 metric ton limit by 2,000 metric tons in February, and that was that. A $4 million to $5 million boat price fishery, come and gone in a proverbial flash.
The competitively abbreviated shrimp season has moved the Northern Shrimp Section of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to begin drafting a new system for managing this easily overlooked yet important and even fascinating sea creature and source of income for fishermen.
Among its unique characteristics, the Gulf of Maine northern shrimp — differently named, but a delicacy as well in Iceland and Scandinavia — is sequentially hermaphroditic. It begins life as a male and only after the age of about 3 1/2 years does it become a female, when it produces eggs and moves inshore, and there it is the target of harvesters, some of whom use trawls and some traps, while a few use both.
This unusual biological survival strategy creates critical need for a fishery that avoids taking the smaller males in order to ensure a critical mass of females and the survival of the fishery.