NOBLEBORO — Behind Tim Simmons’ house, down a hill past piles of coiled rope and brightly painted bundles of lobster buoys, sit 100 shrimp traps.
The traps – some purple, some black, all relatively new – will remain unused this winter for the first time in the 14 years Simmons has been shrimping in the Gulf of Maine.
“It’s hard to have them sitting there not making money,” Simmons said Thursday, three days after regulators announced there will be no 2014 season.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission last week voted to close the Gulf of Maine to shrimping after a harvest last winter that was the smallest since the last fishery shutdown in 1978.
Fishermen say they are disappointed but not surprised.
Last summer, a survey indicated the northern shrimp stock was at its lowest level since 1984, when annual trawl surveys began. A November report from the commission’s Northern Shrimp Technical Committee concluded the stock has collapsed, in part because of warming ocean temperatures.
The report recommended a moratorium on shrimping in 2014 to maximize the spawning potential. In an average year, the Gulf of Maine accounts for about 3 percent of the country’s total shrimp catch. This year, Maine’s 181 shrimping boats landed a total catch of more than 677,000 pounds of northern shrimp.
The loss of income – upwards of $2,000 a day for some shrimpers when prices and the fishing are good – will be painful for Simmons and other Maine fishermen who rely on it to supplement the money they make lobstering and fishing. Shrimp processors fear their industry will be harmed as people looking for northern shrimp turn to other markets.
“What closing the season down does is send a message to all the markets that this is a very risky resource to be playing in,” said Spencer Fuller, the shrimp product line manger for Cozy Harbor Seafood Inc. in Portland, the largest shrimp processor in the state.
Historically, northern shrimp have provided a small but valuable fishery to Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The fishery for northern shrimp was worth an estimated $1.2 million in its limited 2013 season. In 2011, it was worth more than $10 million, according to regulators.
The commercial fishery began in the late 1950s and landings peaked in 1969 with 28.3 million pounds. Over the next decade, landings decreased dramatically to a low of less than 85,000 pounds in 1977, according to the fisheries commission.
The fishery was closed in 1978 because of a stock collapse. Since then, annual catches have been cyclical, with years of both record catches and seasons cut short after less than three weeks.
‘IT’S GOING TO HURT’
For fishermen who cobble together a livelihood by fishing lobster, shrimp, scallops and groundfish, those fluctuations in the fishery are part of life. Some 84 percent of people who fish for shrimp in Maine are also lobstermen; the rest mostly fish for groundfish before converting their boats for the short shrimp season. It’s almost unheard of for someone to fish solely for shrimp, according to fishermen.
Despite recent seasons that were cut short, Simmons said he was still able to make good money shrimping in the winter months, when lobstering slows down.
“It can be good money,” said Simmons, who is president of the Maine Shrimp Trappers Association board of directors. “It’s not like you just throw a trap in a boat and go fish. It’s time-consuming. It’s a lot of back-breaking work.”
Simmons, 52, is used to that tough work. A third-generation lobsterman, his calloused hands are a testament to the years he’s spent throwing and hauling traps off his boat, Trav-Lin. He first started going out on the water with his dad at age 5.
“My dad used to tie a rope to me because I was never afraid of the water,” Simmons said. “(Fishing is) in my blood. It’s what I’ve always done. We know what hard work is.”
In the summer, Simmons spends six days a week hauling lobster traps. This time of year, he’s out on the boat several days a week. On days he’s not on the water, he’s often working at T+D Variety, the Boothbay store he and his wife, Deborah Frankel, bought earlier this year.
The shrimp season – usually about six or eight weeks long – is a welcome change of pace for Simmons, who also coached high school sports for 25 years. When he’s out shrimping, he stays closer to shore and uses less fuel, making the payoff for the tiny pink shrimp that much more sweet.
“Lobstering has been tough. (Shrimping) supplements our income. It’s extra money that people counted on for six or eight weeks,” Simmons said. “It’s tough to make a dollar out there right now.”
On good days last season, Simmons made $2,000 or more by hauling 1,000 pounds of shrimp in a day. Sometimes he’ll bring in a daily haul of 2,000 pounds. Last year he got between $2.10 and $2.20 a pound for his catch, a price made high by low supply and high demand. That extra income goes a long way toward maintaining his boat and fishing equipment.
“It’s going to hurt this year. I won’t have that income to replenish my gear,” Simmons said.
Instead, Simmons will spend more time lobstering than he would otherwise. His wife works full-time as a speech pathologist and they occasionally work together at the store. On Thursday, Simmons spent the morning baking muffins and banana bread to sell at the store. The day before, he was on his boat by 2 a.m. and didn’t get home until it was time for bed.
“I’m hoping I can catch enough lobsters to make up for this season,” Simmons said, sitting at his kitchen table, piles of receipts and invoices stacked neatly around him. “That’s what I’ve got to do. There’s guys up and down the coast here in the same bind.”
‘LIKE A DEATH IN THE FAMILY’
Mel Cushman of Port Clyde, whose husband, Randy Cushman, fishes both groundfish and shrimp, is bracing for the impact of the lost shrimping season.
“That’s half of our income,” she said.
Mel Cushman will look for a job as a bookkeeper to help make up for the lost income. She said they’re lucky to have family members who need help with their own businesses. Randy Cushman has been working recently both on his brother’s lobster boat and helping other family members with their tree business.
Mel Cushman said they worry about their crewman, who is now without work for part of the winter. They also worry about the future of the fishery, she said.
“This feels like a death in the family,” she said.
In South Bristol, fisherman David Osier, who owns five boats and his own wharf, is bracing for the loss of a third of his income. He also knows it will affect those around him, from the crews on his boats to the dock help and bookkeepers.
“You feel bad about it, but what are you going to do? There’s not much coming in,” he said.
Osier said he is hoping for good weather, which would make it easier to catch more groundfish. He’s also worrying about the future of the fishery, though he doesn’t want to give up shrimping entirely.
“We’ll be ready to go when they open her up again,” he said.
Shrimp processors also are eagerly awaiting the next season, but they aren’t staying still. At Port Clyde Fresh Catch, Glen Libby, a former shrimper who now runs the co-op, is looking for other seafood to process. Right now, he’s trying to develop new markets with crab, dogfish and squid.
“We’ll just have to be nimble and try to find other things to do,” he said.
Libby is confident the shrimp shutdown won’t be forever.
“The shrimp have disappeared before. There’s records that show back in the 1950s they disappeared when the ocean temperature was at a similar place to where it is now,” he said. “That kind of gives you hope that if it did go away back then and came back, maybe it will again.”
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: