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Maine Shrimp Hitting Market Thanks to Spawning Study

Caroline Losneck
Fisherman Marshall Alexander (right) unloads shrimp with his deckhand (left) from his trawler, De Dee Mae II, at the Portland Fish Exchange. Alexander caught 1,200 pounds as part of a Northern Shrimp test sample program.

PORTLAND, Maine — Despite a moratorium on the northern Maine shrimp fishing season for the third consecutive year, a few wholesale buyers, restaurants, and markets could have some Maine shrimp on their hands — and plates — this winter, due to a scientific study currently underway throughout the state.

Fisheries regulators have closed the northern Gulf of Maine shrimp fishery every year since 2014, saying the shrimp population has dipped to an unsustainable low level.

Northern Maine shrimp is now considered by the regulatory committee to be “collapsed,” and a 2015 report indicated that from 2012 through 2015, the Maine shrimp population was the lowest on record during the 32 years that scientists have collected data.

However, this week, some Maine fishermen have been harvesting Maine shrimp from traps and trawlers as part of a sampling project being conducted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Northern Shrimp Technical Committee — a regulatory panel that manages the fishery — as well as other agencies including the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the School of Marine Science at the University of Maine in Orono.

As part of the program, four shrimp trawlers and two trappers are collecting northern shrimp samples for biologists until mid-April, in order to study the timing of the egg hatch and the size, gender and developmental stage of the shrimp.

Credit Caroline Losneck / MPBN
Maine shrimp before going to auction at the Portland Fish Exchange on January 28, 2016

Those shrimp not used for the sample are allowed to be sold. The sampling program allows participating fishermen to land a total of just over 48,500 pounds of shrimp from the Gulf of Maine.

On Thursday, fisherman Marshall Alexander, a participant in the study, harvested 1,200 pounds of shrimp on his trawler, the De Dee Mae II. Alexander unloaded his catch at the Portland Fish Exchange and saved some for the sample program.

“Well, hopefully, we’ll end up with a season again,” he says. “This is really to check to see when the majority of the shrimp are spawned out. That’s what this survey is all about. ‘Cause they want to manage by letting a certain percentage of them make sure they spawn before we catch them.”

On Thursday afternoon, buyers at the Portland Fish Exchange in Portland quickly purchased all 1,200 pounds of Maine shrimp caught by Alexander of Biddeford. Buyers on Thursday paid an average price of $8.14 per pound at the auction, with one buyer, Harbor Fish, paying an all-time high of $8.41 a pound, a record price and more than twice what shrimp fetched at auction last year.

George Parr, a Portland fish wholesaler, purchased 540 pounds, for $8.16 per pound, at the auction on Thursday, mostly for a Japanese buyer who will sell the shrimp to sushi restaurants in New York — but also for some Portland restaurants.

Credit Caroline Losneck / MPBN
George Parr, a Portland fish wholesaler, purchased 540 pounds for $8.16 per pound at the shrimp auction at the Portland Fish Exchange on Thursday Jan. 28, 2016.

“Even as good as the shrimp are, this is still a stupid price for shrimp,” he says. “This is a ridiculous price for shrimp. It’s a very-good-quality shrimp. People just want to have it there, just to say I have it. It’s more a prestige thing.”

The last year there was a commercial shrimp season in Maine was in 2013, and at that time, dealers paid fishermen an average of $1.81 a pound.

Maggie Hunter, a biologist at the Department of Marine Resources and a member of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Northern Shrimp Technical Committee, says that rising ocean temperatures in the western Gulf of Maine shrimp habitat over the past decade could be one reason for the decline in northern Maine shrimp, as warmer waters create an inhospitable environment.