Officials cancel shrimp season for the second year in a row

For the second year in a row, officials cancelled the commercial fishing season for Northern shrimp, placing a moratorium on the fishery for the 2015 season.

Also known as Pink Shrimp, Coldwater Shrimp or Deep Water Prawn, Pandalus borealis is small not just in stature—measuring up at only about two to four inches—but also in abundance, according to the most recent assessment of their status as a species in the Gulf of Maine.

The northern shrimp fishery is small compared to other fisheries. Shrimp fishermen are like ice hockey and basketball players: their primary season is the winter. But, in the same way a hockey player might play lacrosse in the spring, shrimp fishermen often fish for different species during different times of year. For many Maine shrimp fishermen, shrimp is not their primary fishery, but rather a species fished in the offseason.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), the majority of the annual Northern shrimp harvest in years past has come from Maine, where the Gulf of Maine constitutes the species’ southern limit geographically. Northern shrimp dwell on the bottom of the ocean floor, where they are captured using otter trawl—large nets with otter boards, or doors, used to keep it open—or traps.

The governing body in charge of managing the Northern Shrimp fishery is the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), an interstate organization that promotes better utilization of fisheries, protects fisheries, and prevents waste in an effort to manage species sustainably. According to its website, the Commission is funded through a combination of dues paid by individual member states and federal grants from NOAA.

Embedded within the ASMFC is the Northern Shrimp Technical Committee, which released its annual report on the species status on Oct. 24. According to the report, the amount of Northern shrimp in the Gulf of Maine between 2012 and 2014 was the lowest on record in the species’ 31-year history of being measured.

The number of shrimp taken annually depends on a web of interconnected factors, including physical factors like temperature, the age distribution of the shrimp population, regulatory measures, the number of people fishing and market conditions.

The report cites several possible reasons for the decline. For instance, there are fewer young fish in the population. This poor recruitment has been linked to a decline in shrimp food (phytoplankton, which are microscopic plants in the ocean), changing ocean temperatures or an increase in the number of shrimp predators including fish such as spiny dogfish, redfish and silver hake.

Climate change is on the forefront of many peoples’ minds; a recent report stated that the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans. According to the ASMFC shrimp press release, “Ocean temperatures in western Gulf of Maine shrimp habitat…reached unprecedented highs in the past several years. 2014 temperatures were cooler; however, temperatures are predicted to continue rising as a result of climate change. This suggests an increasingly inhospitable environment for Northern shrimp and the need for strong conservation efforts to help sustain the stock.”

The report was the primary source of information that fisheries managers consulted when they made the decision on Nov. 5 to cancel the season for another year. According to a news release, “The Northern Shrimp Technical Committee considers the stock to have collapsed with little prospect of recovery in the immediate future.”

“The bleak status report and continuing unfavorable environmental conditions convinced the Section to maintain a moratorium in 2015 to protect the remaining spawning biomass and allow as much reproduction to take place as possible,” Northern Shrimp Section Chair, Mike Armstrong of Massachusetts, said in an ASMFC press release. “The Section will work with its industry and technical advisors to ensure the highest quality data is collected through the research set aside quota.”

As it stands, the Northern shrimp fishery is an open fishery. This means that any number of individuals can fish for shrimp each year, given that the number of shrimp caught by all the fishermen together does not exceed a limit called the total allowable catch (TAC), which is set by the ASMFC.

In 2013, participants in the fishery did not even reach the quota, landing only 54 percent of what they could have caught legally.

While the future of the fishery remains bleak for the time being, scientists will continue to monitor the shrimp population and the ASMFC will release a new stock assessment next year.