PORTLAND, Maine – Maine shrimpers are all but resigned to another year of being unable to pursue their quarry in the Gulf of Maine, with a regulatory board set to decide this week whether to allow a season this winter.
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Maine shrimp are fished in the Gulf of Maine and were a popular winter seafood for years, but regulators shut the fishery down after a collapse during the 2013 fishing season, and it has remained closed since. The shrimp have struggled to rebuild populations as waters have warmed.
A board of the regulatory Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is set to decide Thursday whether fishing will be allowed this year. A committee of scientists has advised the board it's not a good idea, with temperatures off New England inhospitable to the shrimp.
Spencer Fuller, a shrimp and lobster buyer with Cozy Harbor Seafood in Portland, said his company was once the largest processor of Maine shrimp in the country and has suffered. He said that he is prepared for another year of closure, but that it will send residual troubles through Maine's seafood industry.
"All you have to do is look back to the history of shrimp here in the state of Maine and the contributions it has made over the last 60 years," Fuller said. "It's a big deal not only for us, but for the wharfs we deal with, markets we deal with."
Fishermen caught more than 10 million pounds of shrimp in Maine as recently as 2011. One year in the mid-1990s, the shrimp were worth nearly $13 million at the docks. The shrimp were also fished sparingly off New Hampshire and Massachusetts before the shutdown.
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Canada and Greenland have much larger fisheries for the same species, but the small, pink-fleshed, sweet shrimp remain difficult for consumers to find in New England with Maine's fishery shut down. Previously, they were a staple of many New England seafood restaurants in the winter, and sometimes turned up on high-end restaurant menus elsewhere.
They represent a small piece of the multibillion-dollar global shrimp industry, and are not as well known to U.S. consumers as the larger shrimp of the Gulf of Mexico and southern Atlantic Ocean. But the Maine species is the world's most economically significant species of cold water shrimp.
Regulators hope the fishery will be able to reopen, but prospects for this year are "dim," said Max Appelman, a fishery management plan coordinator for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
The Atlantic States is also working on a plan for how to manage the fishery if and when reopening happens, Appelman said.
"If the fishery opens back up again, which we hope it does, we can't have a free for all on all these shrimp," he said. "This is how to make sure the pressure on this weak population isn't too much for it to handle right off the bat."