Regulators may cancel the upcoming northern shrimp season in the Gulf of Maine because of a decline in the shrimp population from overfishing and poor environmental conditions, dealing a blow to fishermen in Massachusetts and other states.
An Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission board is set to meet Monday to decide on plans for the 2013 season. Last month, another group, the Northern Shrimp Technical Committee, recommended a moratorium on catching the shrimp next year. If not a cancellation, the group suggested a “highly conservative approach” with a shortened fishing season.
Joseph Jurek, the Gloucester-based captain of the fishing boat Mystique Lady, said restrictions have tightened on cod fishing in recent years, so he has taken to shrimping for supplemental income. A handful of other Massachusetts fishermen have done the same after catching their limits of groundfish, he said, and a moratorium would eliminate that fallback option.
“With the groundfish regulations, shrimp was a viable alternative for the guys in the wintertime,” Jurek said.
Northern shrimp are small and sweet. They are harvested in the Gulf of Maine during a short portion of the winter and sold around the New England coast.
Jurek is on an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission shrimp advisory panel made up of people in the fishing industry from Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire.
He said if the weather is clear tomorrow, he’ll go fishing instead of traveling to Maine for the meeting. The regulators are set on a season that is too short to lose a day on the water, Jurek said.
A fisherman since the late 1990s, Jurek said he does not expect the regulatory board to support a complete moratorium because too many fishermen in Maine rely on shrimp and need at least a short season. Of the 306 boats that embarked on trips to catch northern shrimp this year, 273 were from Maine, 18 from New Hampshire, and 15 from Massachusetts, according to an assessment from the Technical Committee.
Jurek said it has become more difficult to work as a fisherman each year under increasingly strict regulations. Earlier this year, Cape Ann fishermen lost the fight to preserve cod catch limits when regulators lowered the quota by more than 4 million pounds.
“You have everything invested into your business and then a lot of it’s politics and then some of it’s science that is not always 100 percent proven,” Jurek said. “And every single year it just seems to be getting harder and harder. And it seems like the people who are least considered when these decisions are being made are the people that actually derive income from it.”
Since 2010, the northern shrimp fishing season has been shortened multiple times. According to the Technical Committee’s assessment, the 2010 season was cut down from 180 days to 156 days; in 2011, the 136-day season lasted just 90. This year, the season lasted only about 20 days, ending in mid-February.
Northern shrimp populations have suffered from overfishing and high water temperatures, the Technical Committee reported. The small red shrimp are sensitive to fluctuations in water temperatures, which affect their growth and reproduction, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Technical Committee said sea surface temperatures in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, are at levels higher than any time since the 1950s.
Jurek said he believes the wildlife scientists and regulators are trying, but he is skeptical of their findings. If they cut the shrimp season down dramatically, to about a week, Jurek said the Massachusetts shrimpers probably will not go out. It is simply too much work to switch fishing gear for that little time on the water, he said.
Though only 15 boats from Massachusetts went fishing for shrimp in 2012, Jurek said the loss of a season would have implications beyond that low tally.
Each boat carries multiple fishermen, and if the captains choose not to go shrimping in the Gulf of Maine, he said it will lead to a decrease in fuel and equipment purchases.
“It just takes away another option to try to keep the fishing business going,” Jurek said.
Such a blow would not be unfamiliar to the embattled commercial anglers of Massachusetts, said Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association.
Asked what a moratorium would mean to Cape Ann fishermen, Sanfilippo was short with her response: “It’s another nail in the coffin, basically.”