PORTLAND — One of New England’s last open-access commercial fisheries could be closed to new participants as regulators look at new ways to manage the region’s shrimp fishery, a restriction that some fishermen fear will harm their ability to make ends meet in the winter.
New shrimping rules have been proposed for the Gulf of Maine that include options for the coming season such as quotas and restrictions on where and when the small, sweet shrimp can be caught. But the proposal also includes a rule that could — possibly as soon as 2013 — bar or restrict fishermen who don’t have a history of fishing for shrimp.
The plan is being drawn up following shrimp seasons that were abruptly cut short because fishermen caught too much shrimp too fast. The new plan aims to give more flexibility in managing the fishery.
Many fishermen say limiting the number of fishing boats is probably the best way to maintain shrimp populations while allowing fishermen to turn a profit. One of them is Maggie Raymond, executive director of Associated Fisheries of Maine, who owns two groundfishing boats that aren’t used for shrimping.
“There aren’t a lot of good options if you can’t control how many people continue to come into the fishery,” Raymond said. “We’ve brought this fishery back from some very low levels and we’d like to have it sustainable. We think the only real way to do that is to have control over how many boats are in the fishery.”
The Maine Lobstermen’s Association is opposed to limits on new fishermen.
Many lobstermen rig their boats to catch shrimp to supplement their income in the winter, said Executive Director Patrice McCarron. A limited-entry regime would shut out some of those lobstermen and future generations, she said.
“Shrimp is the one fishery that’s left that still provides fishermen adaptability,” McCarron said. “If you need a little extra income in the winter, you can land a few shrimp and continue to patch a living together as a fisherman. I think to shut that door completely changes the culture, changes how our small coastal communities operate and how they survive the winter.”
The Gulf of Maine shrimp fishery typically accounts for about 2 percent of nation’s annual shrimp harvest. The catch in the Gulf of Mexico is about 40 times larger.
But the waters off Maine are an important source of winter income for hundreds of fishermen. Boats from Maine typically catch about 90 percent of the harvest, with small numbers of boats from New Hampshire and Massachusetts catching the rest.
Regulators currently manage the fishery by deciding how long the season should be and setting a target catch based on scientific assessments. But shrimping was cut short in each of the past two seasons because fishermen surpassed the target. Fishermen last year caught about 13 million pounds, exceeding the target by 48 percent, according to preliminary figures.
The new rules being proposed are opening the door to several new management alternatives. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates the fishery, is taking public comment on the ideas until Sept. 30.
The goal is to have a new set of regulations in place for the next shrimp season, which begins in December, said Michael Waine, the ASMFC’s fishery management plan coordinator for shrimp. A scientific panel will set the season in early November.
One option under consideration would limit how much shrimp could be caught on each trip. Another would limit the number of traps. Other options would designate specific days when fishermen could not go after shrimp or set quotas either by zone, by season or by month. Another proposal would require that catches be reported weekly, rather than monthly.
The draft also includes the proposal to limit the number of shrimp fishermen by restricting who can enter the fishery. It would set a “control date” whereby fishermen who weren’t in the fishery as of June 7 would be treated differently from those who were.
The limited-entry restriction wouldn’t be enacted for the coming shrimp season. If it’s approved, it would go through its own rule-making process and wouldn’t go into effect before the 2013 season.
Terry Alexander, a fisherman from Harpswell who serves on the ASMFC’s northern shrimp panel, said most fishermen dislike quotas and trip limits.
“I don’t think limiting people to what they can catch is very a good idea,” he said. “You’re going to be shoveling shrimp overboard.”
He favors a limited-entry program so fishermen don’t jump into the fishery when times are good and hurt those who have been committed to it. Virtually all other commercial fisheries in New England have limited-entry rules, he said.
“I don’t know why we haven’t done it before this,” Alexander said.