Freshly caught northern shrimp began showing up Thursday at local fishmongers, a day after the official opening of the season for the glistening pink decapods in the Gulf of Maine.
Industry experts say they expect a strong year for one of the region’s few growing fisheries, even though regulators have shortened the season by 44 days and limited the catch to 8.8 million pounds. The limits are a response to last season when fishermen from Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts netted more than 12 million pounds, forcing regulators to shut down the fishery before the end of the 180-day season.
The combination of higher demand and limited supply could be good news for shrimpers. They may be able to charge higher prices, forcing consumers to dig a little deeper.
Free Range Fish on Commercial Street is buying shrimp from six boats this winter and will stock several million pounds before the season is over. On Thursday, the market — one of the few to have the product because of stormy ocean conditions — was selling a pound of fresh-picked shrimp meat for $5.99.
“It’s a little bit more expensive than last year, but demand is way bigger,” said Joe Ray, co-owner of the business.
Other fish market owners expected to feature similar prices. Mike Alfiero, whose family owns Harbor Fish Market on Custom House Wharf, said he planned to charge around $5.99 to $6.99 a pound for hand-picked meat, $3.99 to $4.99 a pound for headless shrimp, and $1 to $1.25 a pound for whole shrimp when supplies show up in display cases today.
Northern shrimp, or Pandalus borealis, live in the cold waters from Canada to Massachusetts and in other parts of the Northern Hemisphere. About 400,000 metric tons of northern shrimp are caught annually worldwide, making the Gulf of Maine, at 4,000 metric tons annually, look insignificant.
“But where we are significant is the size and quality of our shrimp, which is, bar none, the best,” said Spencer Fuller, shrimp director at Portland-based Cozy Harbor Seafood Inc., a major fish processor and distributor.
That has made them a hot commodity in the United Kingdom and other European countries where people eat more Maine shrimp than in America, Fuller said. About 60 percent of Gulf of Maine shrimp are exported.
Maggie Hunter, marine resources scientist at the state Department of Marine Resources, said northern shrimp in the Gulf of Maine grow larger than in Canada because the water is warmer. She said it is also generally agreed that northern shrimp are much sweeter than shrimp that live in southern waters.
Maine shrimp are also in demand because they are freshly caught and live in the wild.
At this time of year, the boats leave at around 2 a.m. to steam out four to five hours to Jeffrey’s Ledge. They return to the dock after dark.
“It’s a sleep-deprived fishery,” said Bert Jongerden, general manager of the Portland Fish Exchange.
The fishermen either drag nets for the bottom-dwelling creatures or use mackerel- or herring-baited traps, similar to lobster traps but with tighter mesh. The trapped shrimp are considered the highest quality because there is virtually no mortality compared with netted shrimp.
There has been some pressure within the industry to limit entry into the fishery, but for now it remains open to anyone.
In 2009, Maine’s shrimping fleet included 172 boats. A year ago the fleet jumped to 230.
“There is a lot of interest,” said George Lapointe, commissioner of marine resources, who expects the number of boats to keep growing. He said it is fairly easy to retrofit lobster boats for shrimping, which becomes even more attractive as the season progresses and shrimp move to within a few miles of shore to spawn.
Mainers caught 5,080 metric tons last year, worth about $5.7 million. Massachusetts and New Hampshire fishermen caught 520 metric tons.
But the fishery is somewhat risky in more ways than one. The boats tend to be small and heavily loaded down on their return.
“You’ve got to be careful in the wind because you can flip a shrimp boat very easily,” said Nick Alfiero of Harbor Fish.
Hunter said northern shrimp are at the southernmost part of their range in the Gulf of Maine and are vulnerable to climate change or warming trends.
Local chefs say they have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Maine shrimp, which are versatile and affordable.
“They are sweet, little plump pieces of candy,” said Jay Villani, chef owner of Local 188 and Sonny’s restaurants in Portland.
Villani said if the weather holds, he expects the shrimp to start appearing on his menus by Sunday. They will continue to make regular appearances in empanadas, risottos and other dishes until the season closes, now scheduled for April 15.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: