The Maine shrimp season is just a fond memory this year. With the 2014 season closed because of a stock collapse, there will be no shrimp chowders to warm your belly. No decadent, creamy shrimp risottos. No sweet, delicate shrimp to toss into your favorite pasta dish.
With so many people pining for the tiny crustaceans, I thought it would be interesting to see if there are still any frozen shrimp out there from the 2013 season for consumers to snap up before they’re gone for good. I also checked in with some Maine restaurants to see what they will be offering on their menus as an alternative to Maine shrimp.
A round of calls and emails to Maine fish markets and grocery stores confirmed that there’s hardly any Maine shrimp left out there in the consumer pipeline, except for Hannaford grocery stores.
“In terms of frozen shrimp from last year, we do have a limited supply in some stores,” said Hannaford spokesman Eric Blom.
Tom Keegan, who handles shrimp and lobster sales for Cozy Harbor Seafood on Portland’s Union Wharf, said the Hannaford shrimp are cooked, peeled Cozy Harbor Maine shrimp found in 9-ounce packages in the frozen seafood case.
“They do have some product in most of the stores now, I believe,” Keegan said. “I’m not sure how long it will last. We really don’t have anything to follow it up with.”
Keegan said the company has considered buying northern shrimp from Canada, but has not made a decision yet.
“I think it would probably happen sometime in the first half of the year if we were going to do something like that,” he said. “The Canadian season really kind of kicks in in April.… That’s when they see their largest shrimp.”
Michael Alfiero of Harbor Fish Market in Portland said they “bought heavy” last year, knowing that this year’s Maine shrimp season was uncertain. They ran out of stock in the fall. The market has purchased a limited amount of Canadian shrimp that Alfiero is selling in bulk to loyal wholesale accounts for $10 to $11 per pound, but “I don’t really have anything for the retail trade.”
The Gulf of Maine shrimp, Pandulus borealis, is the same species as the northern shrimp harvested from Canadian waters, but a completely separate population, according to Margaret Hunter, a scientist at the Maine Department of Marine Resources who works on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s northern shrimp program.
Scientists consider the Maine shrimp to be isolated from its Canadian cousin, she said, so Mainers don’t need to fear eating coldwater shrimp from Canada or, for that matter, places like Greenland and Iceland. It won’t harm the Gulf of Maine stock.
But even though the Maine and Canadian species are biologically the same, their life histories and the way they are harvested may be distinctive enough to result in a slight difference in taste and texture, chefs and processors say.
“Maine shrimp, the eating quality is so unique it’s hard to find another product that’s exactly the same,” Alfiero said.
Keegan notes that the Maine shrimp fishery is a small, dayboat fishery close to shore. Processors get the shrimp on the same day it’s caught.
“From the time it’s landed to processing, it’s a very short amount of time,” he said, “and it’s not that way in Canada. They get smaller shrimp in Canada. The larger shrimp is a much lower percentage of their overall catch. The shrimp we’re used to getting in Maine is considered very large for coldwater shrimp.”
Sam Hayward, chef/owner of Fore Street in Portland, has experimented with Nova Scotia northern shrimp this year, and found them lacking.
Hayward says his favorite way to use Maine shrimp – one of his favorite seafoods – is to serve them raw and well chilled on a raw seafood appetizer plate.
“We prepare them by shelling, then tossing the uncooked tail meats with a few drops of some acidic liquid – verjuice, lemon, malt or cider vinegar, and I’d love to try juiced raw cranberries and rhubarb as well – seconds before serving,” he said in an email. “The proteins in the meats aren’t ‘cooked’ by the acidity, as in ceviche, but only slightly set on the surface. We refer to this as ‘shocking’ the shrimp, and sometimes do similar preps with Nantucket bay scallops. On the plate, the shrimp may be sprinkled with some crunchy Maine sea salt, possibly one of the sea-vegetable salt mixes we make, plus perhaps some Aleppo pepper.”
Hayward says he’s been “disappointed” by the quality of the Nova Scotia shrimp he has tried. One batch came in frozen, another frozen-then-thawed.
“When we finally received fresh shrimp, they tasted and smelled old and we made a decision to hold off any further purchases until quality could be assured,” he said. “For the record, our fishmonger had alerted us that it would be challenging to find shrimps from away that matched the quality of shrimp from local boats.
“I miss Maine shrimps, and I hate not being able to serve them on our winter menus.”
Other restaurants have found the Canadian shrimp a good substitute.
Melissa Bouchard, chef at DiMillo’s on the Water in Portland, said the restaurant is using shrimp sourced from Canada now and has no plans to change its menu. If things do change, she said, they’ll look for a sustainable alternative.
Jeff Buerhaus, chef/owner of Walter’s, has switched to Laughing Bird, a sustainably farmed Caribbean shrimp, for his small plate appetizer of shrimp tacos with lime, chiles, roasted corn, mango and smoked chile mayo.
The texture is a little firmer than Maine shrimp, he said, and the meat is not as sweet.
Harding Smith, owner of four restaurants in Portland, said he had been serving Maine shrimp frozen until his supply ran out several weeks ago. He’s tried the Laughing Bird shrimp “with some success,” and is now using Gulf of Mexico shrimp in wok dishes and a giant Gulf shrimp at the raw bar at Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room.
“But as far as a Maine shrimp substitute,” he said, “there is nothing that compares to the sweet little morsels.”
Other chefs are giving up on shrimp this season and turning to other kinds of seafood currently available from the Gulf of Maine.
Mitchell Kaldrovich, chef at Sea Glass at the Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth, says that for his popular Maine seafood paella, he’ll make up for the lack of northern shrimp by adding more mussels, clams, calamari and lobster.
The chefs at Hugo’s will rely on other seafood products such as dayboat scallops, razor clams and local groundfish to feed their customers.
They’ve turned down the chance to buy fresh shrimp from Canadian wholesalers, and tend not to use farmed shrimp from other countries because they don’t think they are a good replacement for Maine shrimp.
As Keegan points out, the people most immediately affected by the shutdown will not be diners but fishermen and processors. If not for the shrimp bust this season, fishermen would be out there fishing, and Cozy Harbor would have two shifts working now instead of shutting down for while.
“It has a very immediate effect on a lot of people, not just from the perspective of being able to enjoy Maine shrimp,” Keegan said. “And it has repercussions throughout the whole state. Hopefully (the Maine shrimp population) is being protected properly and it will be around for a while. Ideally, it will be done in such a way that we don’t have to be on this roller coaster ride. That’s unnecessarily disruptive to everyone.”
Steve Corry, chef/owner of Five Fifty-Five, says he has mixed feelings about the closure.
While he is “disappointed” he can no longer showcase Maine shrimp in the winter, a time when local ingredients are in short supply, “as an advocate of sustainability and responsible practices I am glad that the decision was made to shut down the fishery for the season in effort to revive the species. Although the short-term impact will certainly be realized throughout the community, the long-term gain will certainly justify the action.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: