February 15, 2012

Maine shrimp season will end Friday, much to fishermen's chagrin

The Associated Press

PORTLAND — Over the objections of fishermen and shrimp processors, regulators on Wednesday voted to shut down the New England shrimp fishery after Friday because fishermen have reached their catch limit for the season.

click image to enlarge

In this Friday, Jan. 6 photo, James Rich maneuvers a bulging net full of northern shrimp caught in the Gulf of Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Fishermen this year were allowed to harvest 4.9 million pounds of the small, sweet shrimp that live in the cold waters of the Gulf of Maine. The catch limit has probably already been exceeded, forcing regulators to shut down the fishery.

The season started Jan. 2.

In a conference call, regulators from Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire sitting on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's shrimp-regulating panel said they had to shut down the fishery or risk harming the shrimp population and forcing strict regulations on the fishery next year.

By the time the final shrimp catch is tallied, the harvest will likely total between 5.5 million and more than 6 million pounds, said Dennis Abbott, who represents New Hampshire on the panel.

"I don't think any of us (panel) members want to continue this overfishing as we see it and find ourselves in the following year having to do more drastic measures," he said. "We just aren't doing anybody any justice if we continue this fishery any longer."

But fishermen and processors said shrimp stocks are in good shape and closing down the fishery will hurt shrimp markets that processors have spent years building up. Others argued that the science that is used to set the allowable catch is flawed.

Gary Libby of Port Clyde said fishermen like him were expecting this season to last at least through February, especially when they're seeing a good amount of shrimp.

"To cut off the dealers right now, it'll be third year in a row they've been cut off prematurely and that will damage the markets," he said.

Shrimp provide a small but valuable fishery for hundreds of New England fishermen. The fleet this year comprised 225 boats from Maine and 31 from New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

The annual harvest varies widely from year to bear based on scientific assessments on how the population is faring.

Citing a report that showed shrimp stocks in decline, regulators set this year's catch limit at 4.4 million pounds, later increasing it by about 10 percent to 4.9 million pounds. Fishermen and shrimp processors, upset with the small quota following a 2011 harvest that totaled 13.3 million pounds, argued that the scientific model used to determine the harvest limit is flawed and underestimates the shrimp biomass in the Gulf of Maine.

Processors and fishermen offered up an alternative scientific assessment to regulators that would allow for a bigger catch, a longer season and more jobs in the shrimp industry. It's been estimated the shrimp industry in Maine employs more than 1,500 people, from fishermen and workers who help unload boats to truck drivers and processors.

During Wednesday's conference call, things got testy after regulators from New Hampshire suggested that panel representatives from Maine were manipulating the regulatory process. New Hampshire officials wanted to shut down the season on Thursday, but Maine representatives said they couldn't do so because they were legally obligated to advertise the closing date in newspapers, thus pushing the closure date back by a day.

Panel member Ritchie White, who represents New Hampshire, said he's going to make sure regulators have tighter reins on the fishery next year to ensure the catch limit isn't exceeded.

John Norton, the owner of Cozy Harbor Seafood in Portland, said New Hampshire's representatives have been taking a hardline stance against any suggestion that the catch limits can be increased.

"It seems like they're trying to hang the whole industry in the state of Maine based on flawed science," Norton said.

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