For more than 20 years, Dana Hammond made close to half his annual income shrimping. But his shrimping profits began to dwindle in 2013. That season, regulators were alarmed by the lack of shrimp biomass in the Gulf of Maine, and the amount he was allowed to catch was cut 72 percent. The fishery was closed entirely in 2014. It hasn’t reopened since and Hammond, who fishes out of Portland on his boat the Nicole Leigh, has been trying to make up the deficit from his other main source of income, groundfishing.

But Hammond isn’t ready to let shrimping go. It’s an ideal winter fishery for him, allowing him to stay close to shore during rough and cold weather. He’s so vested in the future of the fishery that this summer he went to sea with the Northeast Fisheries scientists who conduct the annual summer survey, the main source of data that determines the status of the fishery every year.

“I didn’t get paid,” Hammond said. “I went anyway because I want to make sure they are doing stuff right.”

Hammond’s goal is to help the scientists be better fishermen – the more they catch, the more likely it is his fishery will reopen. Or better put, the more shrimp the survey finds, the better chance it is that there will be another season for Maine shrimpers. The survey concluded earlier in August and though its findings won’t be available until late October, it is the key to determining whether Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will decide at its meeting in early to mid-December whether to reopen the fishery for the tiny Northern shrimp (Pandalus borealis) in 2018.

In the event that the fishery does reopen, it will likely follow different rules. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has, with the cooperation and input of local fishermen, developed a new Fisheries Management Plan, updated in consideration of the recent problems in the shrimp fishery. That plan, known as Amendment 3 will be finalized at a meeting in Portland on Aug. 31.

Typically, putting the regulatory side of a fishery in contact with those who do the fishing entails some tension, distrust even, the kind that can make for a combative relationship. The people who make their living on the water don’t want to be told what to do and how to do it, especially not by people who came up in the world of petri dishes and test tubes, not traps and trawls.

But as the Northern shrimp fishery faces the most extreme challenge in a history that spans nearly a century, the relationship between shrimpers and scientists has become, cautiously, more collaborative. The more so the better, from the perspective of fisheries biologist Peter Chase, who oversees the annual survey for the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration’s (NOAA) Northeast Fisheries Science Center. He’s used to getting a lot of questions about the survey as soon as he comes ashore in summer – starting with, “did you see a lot of shrimp?” Moreover, he understands the frustrations of the fishermen. Some of them “have been vocal about complaining about our survey,” he said. “Others have been really helpful.” Like Hammond.

“It shouldn’t be an us-versus-them thing here,” Chase said. “I don’t want to put anyone out of business.”

“We want to be in this together,” he added. “This is research that I am hoping will show that the resource is coming back.”

ALL ABOARD FOR SCIENCE

Every summer, the Gloria Michelle and a crew of about 10, led by Chase, traverse the Gulf of Maine. It makes research hauls at 84 points across the Gulf, most randomly selected by computer, and the team of scientists aboard count, measure and assess every shrimp (and any other fish) that comes up in its nets. That’s the survey regulators rely on most, but there two other sources of data. The states of Maine and New Hampshire use a fishing boat, the Robert Michael, for an annual spring and fall groundfish survey that includes shrimp, focusing on the state’s inshore waters where shrimpers typically make their catches. A third survey, in the Gulf of Maine in the fall, is conducted by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center.

None of these are fishing trips, said Maggie Hunter, a biologist with Maine’s Department of Marine Resources who has worked extensively with the shrimp fishery, and the distinction can be puzzling to some fishermen.

“We aren’t out there trying to find the most shrimp,” Hunter said. “It is a completely different mindset from what a fishermen might do. When we show them on a map where we’re going, they are going to say, ‘You’re not going to find shrimp there.’ ”

After four years of crewing on the Robert Michael for research trips, Hammond understands the shift in mindset. But he wants to bring his fisherman’s expertise to the vessels. Recently he has served as a consultant on the “doors” that spread the net open when the Gloria Michelle trawls. The old ones are of such a vintage model that they pre-dated his 25 years in the business.

“I haven’t ever seen any like that since I have been fishing,” Hammond said.

The Gloria Michelle, built in 1974 to be a shrimp boat in the Gulf of Mexico, came into the possession of NOAA’s Fisheries Service after it was seized in a drug bust. It was a free boat, but it came with old equipment.

Dana Hammond has had to rely on groundfishing since the shrimp fishery crashed and was closed entirely in 2014. But shrimping is an ideal winter activity for him, since it allows him to stay close to shore during cold or rough weather. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

“The industry never liked our doors,” Chase said ruefully. The scientific crew isn’t wild about the 1970s-style technology either. They’re too big to get over the rails easily (or as safely as the crew would like) and sometimes get mired in the mud at the bottom while trawling, Chase said, noting that “trawl door technology has come a long way.”

How well the doors work affects the catch. If they don’t spread properly, less comes in on a haul, and that’s what Hammond worries about (although Chase said the old doors did a fine job of spreading the net).

“I just got tired of the data being wrong over time,” Hammond said.

It’s not that he thinks the scientists are bungling anything deliberately. But he views gear with a different eye. This June, when Hammond joined the crew of the Gloria Michelle, he helped the scientists adjust to the new equipment he’d suggested (it’s the same he has on his own boat). He also cast a critical eye over the rest of the boat and did some tinkering.

“There were simple things that I fixed in the three days that I was on board that any normal fisherman would have fixed right away,” Hammond said. “Just simple things on the boat, safety-wise, that a fisherman would know how to do.”

“I’m not throwing the scientists under the bus,” he added. But they aren’t fishermen, Hammond said, and as such, they move at a pace he sometimes finds frustrating. Still, he’ll keep chipping in to help them with their work. “I would rather just go fishing,” Hammond said. “But if somebody doesn’t change something, there is going to be none of us shrimpers left.”

EARLY CATCH

The East Coast Northern shrimp fishery can be traced back to the late 1920s. According to a 1952 assessment of the then young fishery, in the 1920s draggers out of Gloucester would bring in small numbers of the shrimp when they were groundfishing. Sometimes they’d sell the tiny pink shrimp on the Boston market, although most were consumed by the fishermen. Then General Seafoods Corporation started investigating the potential for a commercial fishery; southern shrimp were already wildly popular in the United States. The company sent out draggers in the summer of 1927, landing as much as 3,000 pounds a day from the region east of Jeffrey’s Ledge.

Roger Collard unloads totes of shrimp from the hold of the Theresa Irene III after the boat tied up to the pier at Camp Ellis in Saco in January 2006. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

But that was the extent of the company’s experiment. Then in 1936, a Norwegian who had helped establish his country’s shrimp fishery teamed up with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to study the Gulf of Maine potential for shrimp. In the summer months, the shrimp were offshore, but during the winter, they moved into more shallow coastal waters, where fisherman from Pemaquid Point down to Gloucester were able to pull in 30 pounds an hour.

By 1938, 13 boats were dragging for shrimp in the Gulf of Maine, and getting 7.5 cents a pound for them. The catches were uneven and the market uncertain; the American public was more familiar with and interested in southern shrimp. By 1942 a cannery in Friendship was processing shrimp and in 1945 the shrimp fleet had increased to 31 boats. But in subsequent years, the catch continued to fluctuate and it wasn’t until the 1950s that the fishery took off. In 1969 shrimp landings were up to a record 24 million pounds.

The state of Maine began surveying the fishery in the 1960s, although on a much more limited basis than today’s surveys, according to Maggie Hunter. “At most, they did about 20 stations,” Hunter said.

In 1978, regulators shut the shrimp fishery down for the first time after a drastic reduction in biomass. “The stock recovered pretty quickly,” Hunter said. In 2002 regulators allowed only a very short season, just 25 days, Hunter said. But again, the stock rebounded, with successful spawning seasons. In 2010, the catch was over 12 million pounds, the highest it had been in over 30 years.

But just two years later, shrimpers caught one-third that amount, and the sharp decline in the biomass led to the current closure. The main difference in this unprecedented stretch of closures is that it corresponds with increasingly warm waters in the Gulf of Maine, which researchers attribute to climate change.

EATING 2013 SHRIMP

Why does that matter for Northern shrimp? For starters, they like cold water, so much so that the Gulf of Maine represents their southernmost habitat.

Shrimp have a life span of about five years. They start their lives as male and transition to female when they’re about 3. They spawn in late summer and females move into inshore waters with their eggs as winter nears. The eggs hatch and feed inshore. But recruitment, i.e. the abundance and survival of that spawn, has been at historical lows for the period between 2010 and 2015. It could be timing, with the eggs hatching in January or even earlier because the water is warmer than usual, but before the longer days of sunlight in February help the algae they feed on reach the level of growth the shrimp need – an already narrow window of opportunity grown narrower.

The Gloria Michelle, used to assess the shrimp fishery. Hammond recommended new gear to help the scientists in their work – the Gloria Michelle was built in 1974. Photo courtesy of NOAA

Hunter said the shrimp born in 2015 is below average, but still the best anyone has seen since 2009. Those shrimp are still too small to catch, however, and what’s harvestable now is almost entirely the shrimp born in 2013.

That 2013 year class of shrimp began spawning early, Hunter said, at two, and “quite a few of them” at age 3 rather than 4, the usual age to spawn. “So they are really working hard to do their part,” she said. Problematically, 2018 will mark the end of most of their life spans.

If you’ve eaten Maine shrimp in the last couple of years, you’ve most likely been eating shrimp from that year class – and paid a lot for it. Cooked and processed, a pound of shrimp is going for $25 at some fish stores, like Cantrell’s in Topsham.

IN THE NAME OF RESEARCH

Given that the shrimp fishery is closed, where is that shrimp coming from?

In the last three years, regulators have allowed a small number of trawlers and trappers (who use traps that are very similar to lobster traps) to go out for limited hauls. The Maine shrimpers turn over data and some specimens to the Department of Marine Resources, but are allowed to sell the rest. In New Hampshire and Massachusetts, where traditionally about 10 percent of the total catch of Northern shrimp is made, a few vessels have also been cleared for research catches.

Hunter is still finalizing the report, which will be presented at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Northern Shrimp Section meeting on Aug. 31. But her preliminary findings for 2017 were that some of the fishermen assigned to the research catch came up short of getting the full catch they’d been alloted, landing about 33 tons when they would have been allowed to take 53 tons.

The Massachusetts shrimpers averaged 300 pounds a day, a quarter of the amount they were allowed to catch, and New Hampshire shrimpers landed closer to 200 pounds. Maine shrimpers fared better.

“The guys in western and midcoast Maine got their limit more often than not,” Hunter said.

At the docks, they were rewarded with steep wholesale prices, up to $7 a pound (perspective: shrimp fetched 13 cents a pound in 1980).

In some cases, the shrimpers may have been foiled by finding their usual fishing grounds filled up with lobster gear; with the shrimp season closed, the lobstermen wouldn’t be expecting them. Or maybe some of the shrimp had moved offshore sooner than usual, driven away by higher water temperatures.

“There is no question that the shrimp is really at a low spot,” said Arnie Gammage, a longtime shrimp trapper out of South Bristol and a member of the Northern Shrimp Advisory panel working with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission on a new management plan for the fishery, assuming, that is, that it will reopen.

“Some people don’t agree with the numbers from the summer survey,” Gammage said. “But it always seems to reflect what we see.”

A MURKY FUTURE

Gammage knows there’s a lot of pressure to reopen the shrimp fishery this winter. But he doesn’t think it should be rushed.

“If the numbers aren’t any better, I don’t know how they can justify having a season,” Gammage said. “We really can’t afford to kill any shrimp that has got spawn on it.”

He’s 64 and says he probably won’t go shrimping again. But he’d like his sons and grandsons to be able to. “I just think we need to take every step possible to try to bring this fishery back. I don’t want to see it open, just out of greed for people to make a little money in one year. That’s my opinion and nobody else’s opinion.”

But Hammond fears the fishery is in danger of being forgotten, by distributors, by customers and by fishermen.

“We all want a sustainable fishery, but you’ve got to let us go. We are going to lose all our markets if we just keep it closed,” he said.

Hammond took part in the 2016 research catch and said he easily made his quota. “In my opinion, there is enough shrimp that the season should be open,” he said. But not full-scale, he said. “Maybe ease into it.”

The closures have made him confident the lack of shrimp is not the fault of fishermen. “In four years of being closed, if it hasn’t changed, then it isn’t overfishing,” Hammond said.

Peter Chase doesn’t disagree. In the 12 years he has been running the survey for the Northeastern Fisheries Sector, he’s witnessed the numbers drop radically. “We had periods where when we got into shrimp, we would get 8 to 10 baskets (a bushel) in a 15-minute tow,” Chase said. Now, he said, “If we got a full basket of shrimp, we would be like, ‘That’s a big tow!’ ”

“I think the general consensus now is that the issues with the shrimp is that this isn’t an overfishing situation,” Chase said. “This is, I think, more related to changing environment and warming waters.”

Whether the Maine shrimp survives, let alone rebounds, may then be out of mankind’s hands. Either way, they’re already missed.

“They are probably my favorite seafood,” Arnie Gammage said. “That is all I ever ate when I went out to a restaurant. I just never got sick of them. Now I am sick because I can’t get them.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

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