There have been times – boom times – when Maine shrimp was so plentiful, it was taken for granted.

Rick Frantz, owner of Andy’s Old Port Pub on Commercial Street in Portland, recalls going to Boothbay with his girlfriend in the late 1960s and buying Maine shrimp by the barrelful. For poor college kids, it was a cheap source of protein.

“It was very, very inexpensive,” he said. “We’d take it back to the fraternity and boil it.”

Fifty years later, the Maine shrimp season has become a casualty of warming waters because of climate change and, consequently, strict regulations. On Wednesday, regional fisheries managers voted to extend a moratorium on shrimping in northern New England through the 2018 season, which traditionally runs between December and April. For the fifth year in a row, the sweet little morsels likely won’t appear on Maine restaurant menus. At a time when chefs are more focused than ever on local ingredients, what will they do without these winter delicacies – especially when it looks as if they may never come back?

Shellfish distributors who sell to Maine restaurants say chefs are searching out alternatives to satisfy diners’ appetites for Maine shrimp. Frantz, like many others, now substitutes Canadian shrimp, which are the same species but a genetically distinct population. At his Andy’s Old Port Pub, they are deep-fried to use in po’boys and salads, served as appetizers, and piled onto plates for shrimp dinners.

These days, the shrimp po’ boy at Andy’s Old Port Pub in Portland is served using Canadian shrimp, a genetically distinct population from the Maine species. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

“They seem to be a pretty good substitute,” Frantz said. “We don’t push them as hard, only because we would rather push something that is from our own (fishermen).”

CANADIAN, FARM-RAISED ALTERNATIVES

Other chefs are using farmed shrimp from around the globe (Maine has no commercially available farm-raised shrimp), or shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico that is a similar size to Maine shrimp, but white instead of pink. The fussiest are dipping into a small supply of Maine shrimp from a limited (and pricey) fishery designed to aid research. And some chefs have taken shrimp off their menus altogether.

Ross Carroll, general manager at Maine Maritime Products in Belfast, says the classic fry shacks that go through 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of shrimp a year are using the Canadian shrimp, and “most people won’t even know the difference.” Most other restaurants, he said, are flocking to 70-90 count (meaning 70 to 90 shrimp in one pound) farm-raised shrimp from Southeast Asia. Those shrimp, farmed in places like Thailand and Vietnam, are larger than Maine shrimp, but they are half the price of Canadian shrimp and come peeled, deveined and individually frozen so cooks don’t have to thaw a huge block of them at once.

“It’s a more consistent supply that will never go away,” Carroll said. “It’s not so volatile like the wild shrimp.”

Wild northern shrimp are light pink and prized for their sweet taste and delicate texture. They cook very fast – add them to a bowl of hot broth, and they’ll be done by the time the bowl is carried to the table. The species, Pandalus borealis, is found in the Arctic, north Atlantic, and north Pacific oceans. In the North Atlantic, Maine is at the southern edge of the species’ range. The shrimp are temperature-sensitive, and as climate change warms the waters of the Gulf of Maine, they are struggling – either not surviving, or not reproducing, according to Margaret Hunter, a Maine Department of Marine Resources scientist with the northern shrimp program.

Gone are the days of fishermen selling cheap Maine shrimp by the side of the road, or families buying them a couple hundred pounds at a time, as Carroll’s grandfather did, then blanching and freezing them for budget-friendly meals.

“Maine shrimp was a staple for a long time,” said George Parr, owner of Upstream Trucking, which sells seafood to lots of Portland-area restaurants. “People would buy 50 pounds of whole shrimp to take home and sit in the corner and peel them and freeze them.”

EVEN ‘TEST SHRIMP’ HARVEST IS IFFY

Like Carroll, Parr has seen his regular customers switch to farmed shrimp. “They went to farmed shrimp because you can’t get wild shrimp” from other parts of the globe such as South America and Mexico, he said. “They don’t bother fishing wild shrimp that small because they can’t get any money from them. … Even Canada is not putting out that much product.”

This coming year, those chefs who have relied on “test shrimp” – caught in the Gulf of Maine and sold by some fishermen to support research into the decline of the shrimp population – may be out of luck. Last year, that catch was limited by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to 53 metric tons, and fishermen were able to land only 32 tons. Next year’s “research set-aside” catch of Maine shrimp has been drastically reduced to just 13.3 metric tons, but Commissioner Patrick Keliher of the Maine Department of Marine Resources has said Maine will not participate in the research harvest at all.

Cara Stadler, who owns Tao Yuan in Brunswick and Bao Bao Dumpling House in Portland, buys some Southeast Asian farm-raised shrimp, but says she will only use Maine shrimp for certain classic Chinese fried shrimp dishes.

“They mimic a type of shrimp that’s in Shanghai,” she said. “But they’re even smaller in Shanghai.”

For those dishes, in the past she’s purchased Maine research shrimp from Parr, and will again next year, if it is available.

“Every year we’ve gotten maybe a couple of pounds,” she said. “It basically goes on the menu for a half second, and then it goes right off. But you work with what you get.”

Zach Yates, sales manager at Harbor Fish Market in Portland, says in the last few years, sushi bars have used the test shrimp, too, and higher-end restaurants have bought it whole, since buying it peeled is exorbitantly expensive.

When Maine shrimp were plentiful, they could be found for $1 a pound, or even 50 cents a pound right off the boat. Distributors estimate that in recent years the Maine test shrimp have sold for $6 to $8 a pound whole; peeled, they went for $13-15 a pound.

Keiko Suzuki Steinberger at Suzuki’s Sushi Bar in Rockland used test shrimp last year to make a big supply of dumplings, which she then froze to make her supply last. She has used Canadian shrimp in the past and says she will again if she can find a good supply at a reasonable price.

‘THERE’S NO SUBSTITUTE FOR MAINE SHRIMP’

Mike Wiley, co-owner of Hugo’s, Eventide Oyster Co. and The Honeypaw in Portland, says he and co-chef Andrew Taylor served the Maine test shrimp lightly grilled at Hugo’s last year, and fried at their other restaurants.

“Both Andrew and I believe that there’s no substitute for Maine shrimp, and if we can’t get them super-fresh, we just won’t serve shrimp of any kind,” he said.

Likewise, Scales restaurant on the Portland waterfront – whose very name evokes thoughts of seafood – has decided not to serve shrimp at all “because they’re really hard to get, and if you serve them fresh they have a really short shelf life,” chef Frederic Eliot said.

But it isn’t these high-end places that have suffered the most. “It was the clam shacks, and places like that, that really got hit” by the shutdown of the fishery, Parr said.

At Bayley’s Seafood Restaurant in Scarborough, Canadian shrimp is used in shrimp rolls and shrimp stew, and fried shrimp is piled high on plates for shrimp dinners. Owner Dan Bayley says the restaurant goes through 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of shrimp a year. The lack of Maine shrimp has been especially hard on him because he used to process shrimp himself, and he invested in new processing equipment just before the shrimp fishery first shut down in 2014. The equipment has been sitting idle ever since, and now that the fishery will be closed for a fifth year, he’s trying to decide whether or not he should sell it.

“It’s a hell of a slam, you know,” he said. “We used to have 50 or 60 people down there in the plant peeling shrimp, and now it’s down to zero.”

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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