With their quota cut by 74 percent and warnings that the Gulf of Maine shrimp population was in bad shape due to warm ocean temperatures, New England fishermen expected this to be a rough shrimp season.
But it’s turned out to be an even bigger bust than anybody anticipated. The shrimp catch has been meager, resulting in a short supply for processors and higher prices for consumers. The season is on course for the smallest harvest in more than 30 years, and possibly since 1978 when the fishery was shut down altogether.
When regulators set the quota for this season, fishermen thought the 1.4 million-pound catch limit would be fished up quickly. Instead, the catch has been so paltry that regulators are now allowing boats to fish seven days a week instead of two they were initially allotted. They’ve also removed the 800-pound trip limit for shrimp trappers.
Gary Libby, a fisherman in Port Clyde, Maine, said he caught 800 pounds of the small, sweet shrimp on his best day this winter. Last year, he averaged 2,000 pounds a day.
“We were expecting it to be bad going in, but we weren’t expecting it to be as bad as it was,” he said.
Shrimp provide a small but important fishery for New England fishermen each winter, including some out of Gloucester and Cape Ann. The shrimp fleet last year included 225 boats from Maine, and 31 combined from Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
The new season began Jan. 23 for net fishermen, who were allotted about 1.2 million pounds of the harvest. Fishermen who catch shrimp in traps began their season Feb. 1, with a quota of under 200,000 pounds.
But the catch has come up far short — just a year after the 2012 season had to be shut down on the premise that fishermen had already exceeded their allowable catch of 4.9 million pounds.
Shrimp fishermen and processors challenged that action, saying that the shrimp stocks were in good shape and that closing down the fishery would hurt shrimp processors’ marketing abilities. That contention remains just one of several between fishermen and their federal regulators over the validity of studies regarding seafood stocks.
The shrimp fishery historically has gone through boom-and-bust cycles, with the catch fluctuating sharply depending on the status of the shrimp population.
But this year, the going’s so bad that fishermen have had trouble finding enough shrimp to even approach the catch limit. The season officially ends April 12, but many have already hung up their nets for the season.
In the season’s first seven weeks through March 8, fishermen had caught about 597,000 pounds — less than half the allowable catch.
Dave Osier, a fisherman and shrimp dealer in South Bristol, Maine, said his boats have been catching about 100 pounds an hour this season, a fraction of the 500 pounds per hour they catch in a good year. As of late, the catch rate has been about 50 pounds an hour, he said.
“It’s just dribbling in,” he said. “But the price is $1 more a pound this year. That’s helped a little.”
With so little shrimp, retail prices have risen.
At Harbor Fish Market in Portland, hand-peeled shrimp meat has been selling for $10.99 to $11.99 a pound, up from $7.99 to $8.99 last year, said co-owner Mike Alfiero. But customers understand that shrimp is a volatile fishery with up-and-down catches and prices, he said.
“There’s been very little resistance on the consumer side,” he said.
Libby, in Port Clyde, said the bad season has rippled into the community, providing less work and money for shrimp-peeling plants, people who sell shrimp from the back of their pickup trucks, wharf workers, truck drivers and fuel dealers.
A lot of fishermen, he said, are convinced there won’t even be a shrimp season next year — paralleling the concerns of Gloucester and other New England groundfishermen, who see new NOAA catch limits on Gulf of Maine cod, especially, threatening their 2013 season, which begins May 1.
“They’ll either be unemployed, find another job or fish for something else,” Libby said.