PORTLAND — An indicator of the Gulf of Maine shrimp population has fallen to its lowest level on record, raising questions about whether the fishery should be shut down this coming winter.
This summer’s shrimp index was at its lowest point since the annual trawl survey began in 1984, said Maggie Hunter, a scientist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources who sits on a three-state technical committee that analyzes the data and recommends what the rules should be for the upcoming season.
Regulators will use the survey when they meet in November to decide the dates of this winter’s shrimp-fishing season — or if there will be one at all.
Scientists last year recommended shutting down the fishery, but regulators ended up setting a short season with a 74 percent cut in quota. In the end, the season was a bust because there were so few shrimp to catch.
“And it looks like the status of the stock is worse this year, so you can guess what our recommendation is going to be this year,” Hunter said.
In an average year the Gulf of Maine accounts for only about 3 percent of the U.S. shrimp catch, but the bleak survey results are a blow for scores of fishermen who rely on shrimp in the winter when there are few other fishing opportunities. About 90 percent of the annual harvest is typically caught by Maine boats, with New Hampshire and Massachusetts accounting for the rest.
Dave Osier, who owns five fishing boats and also buys shrimp from fishermen, was hoping the population would bounce back. Even though last winter’s harvest was the lowest since 1978, when the fishery was shut down, it at least paid a few bills, he said.
“It’s bad news for us,” said Osier, of Bremen. “We were hoping to get a better season than last winter.”
Seafood processors will also be hurt by the lack of shrimp, which provides employment when business is slow, said Glen Libby, manager of Port Clyde Fresh Catch, a small processing company in Port Clyde.
“When you get shrimp, you get a boost,” he said.
The Gulf of Maine shrimp fishery has seen boom-and-bust cycles before.
The harvest averaged about 25 million pounds a year from 1969 to 1972 before falling to under 1 million pounds in 1977 and culminating in a closure of the fishery in 1978. There was a similar down cycle in the late 1990s and early last decade.
Now, the shrimp population doesn’t look like it’ll be bouncing back anytime in the next few years, Hunter said.
Not only is there a dearth of shrimp, there are very few young shrimp that would normally be caught in three or four years as they reach market size, Hunter said. This is the third consecutive year there’s been a shortage of young shrimp.
“That means there won’t be many for this coming winter, but there’ll be even fewer for the three years after that,” she said.
The decline in the shrimp population can be blamed primarily on warming water temperatures, with overfishing playing a small role, Hunter said.
But Randy Cushman, a longtime shrimp fisherman in Port Clyde, thinks shrimp are in bad shape in part because regulators haven’t been conservative enough. Quotas have been too high in recent years, and the fishery should have been shut down last year, he said.
He favors shutting it down this winter to let stocks rebuild for the future.
“I’ve relied on this fishery for most of my life, and it’s a huge part of my income,” he said.