PORTLAND, Maine — Shrimp-fishing regulators on Monday set a short winter shrimp season with a low quota following a warning from scientists that the Gulf of Maine shrimp population is in poor shape due to environmental conditions.
An Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission panel set the allowable catch for the upcoming season at about 1.4 million pounds — about a quarter of last year’s catch of about 5.3 million pounds.
The season will begin Jan. 23 for net fishermen, who were allotted about 1.2 million pounds of the harvest. Fishermen who catch shrimp in traps begin their season Feb. 1, with a quota of under 200,000 pounds.
In their assessment of the Gulf of Maine shrimp population, scientists recommended having a shrimp-fishing moratorium this winter. If a fishery were to be allowed, scientists said it should start after at least 50 percent of the shrimp have hatched their eggs, which typically takes place in mid-February.
Gary Libby, a fisherman from Port Clyde, said a moratorium should be avoided at all costs because fishermen rely on shrimp for a few paychecks each winter, when their fishing options are limited.
“We really need a season,” he said during Monday’s meeting in Portland.
Shrimp provide a small, yet valuable, fishery for New England fishermen each winter. Maine fishermen catch about 90 percent of the harvest, with Massachusetts and New Hampshire fishermen accounting for the rest. The shrimp fleet last year included 225 boats from Maine, and 31 combined from Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
The move for a limited season comes 10 months after the last season was abruptly shut down on the premise that fishermen had already exceeded their allowable catch of 4.9 million pounds. But shrimp fishermen and processors had said the shrimp stocks are in good shape and that closing down the fishery will hurt shrimp processors’ marketing abilities. That contention is the latest of several between fishermen and their federal regulators over the validity of studies regarding seafood stocks.
But Anne Richards, chairwoman of the ASMFC’s scientific panel that wrote the 2012 shrimp assessment report, said during Monday’s talks that data shows shrimp stocks are again in a steep decline; based on the evidence, she said, the likely culprit for the decline is warming ocean temperatures.
“The environment is hot, it’s warming and it’s reached the warmest levels on record,” she said. “That’s not a good thing.”
Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Pat Keliher argued for a higher quota than what was eventually approved. Fishermen, he said, are paying a steep price for something beyond their control.
“The environment is what’s affecting this fishery,” he said.
But regulators are taking a gamble simply by allowing a season this winter, said Mike Armstrong, a member of the shrimp panel representing the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.
“We are being extremely risk-prone in having a season,” he said, “and there may be consequences to that,” he said.