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Regional Regulators Vote For 3-Year Closure Of Maine Shrimp Fishery

A panel of regulators from Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts voted Friday to put a three-year moratorium on the commercial fishery for Northern Shrimp, also known as Maine shrimp. Maine's representatives at the meeting in Portland wanted some type of season preserved, but they were outnumbered.

The decision came after Katie Drew, a scientist with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, told the panel there was virtually no chance the shrimp would bounce back from depleted levels before 2022 and, in fact, might never recover. Above all, she says, the Gulf of Maine, has warmed to the limits of the shrimp's reproductive capacity.

"The warmer the waters the less baby shrimp you have the next year,” says Drew. “And so we've had a lot of warm waters, and we're just not getting a enough baby shrimp into the population. And in addition a lot of things like to eat northern shrimp.”

Predators such as red hake, spiny dogfish and squid, which are growing more abundant in some parts of the Gulf. The pressure they are putting on shrimp is a growing problem, even though one top predator, humans, haven't been in the picture since 2014.

Historically, the commercial shrimp fishery, which traditionally started in December, has been dominated by boats from Maine. But it's been closed for four consecutive years.

Panel member Mike Armstrong, assistant director in the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, says the regulators should bow to reality and proposed the three-year closure.

"The stock will not grow, and it might decline,” Armstrong says. “That's where we're at. And so it's my belief we're saving people pain, and I also believe that fishermen want to hear the bad news as soon as possible. They have business plans and I think it's irresponsible to string them along."

“This is fisheries management but part of it feels like it's mismanagement,” says Steve Train, a fourth-generation Maine fisherman based in Long Island.

Train fishes for lobsters now, but has fished for shrimp too, and he's the non-voting chair of what's called the ‘Northern Shrimp section’ of the federal commission.

"In my opinion we should have been at least trying to craft some sort of small-scale fishery that would allow shrimp that are just going to die of old age to be caught, and instead we're just throwing in the towel for three years," he says.

Patrick Keliher, the Commissioner of Maine's Department of Marine Resources, feels much the same. He voted against the three-year moratorium, but was out-voted by the representatives from Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Keliher says he has concerns about the data that are available now, noting that fishermen believe they are seeing signs of a rebound in northern shrimp-abundance. He's calling for further research that includes data-surveys by commercial fishermen.

"The industry has zero confidence,” Keliher says. “I don't like managing a species when I can't talk to a fisherman and one hundred percent of them tell me 'we don't believe in it, because of the way it's being conducted', and trying to get some confidence back into the industry with some changes in the survey and potentially going to a commercial platform would be a real benefit."

Keliher pushed his colleagues to take am entirely new look at the fishery, with an emphasis on the role that climate change is playing in the species' fate, a proposal the other members agreed to.

"What gives me hope is that we'll finally take climate change into consideration, and then we'll figure out if there are different management strategies to move forward with,” he says. “This is all about the sensitivity of the Gulf of Maine. We see all of these invasive species coming in, we're seeing a loss of a native stock now. It just means that we need to do more and more work associated to all of our fisheries as it relates to a changing environment."

The panel also agreed to keep open the option of revisiting the shrimp fishery’s closure before 2022, should evidence emerge of a significant change in the species population. Meanwhile, the 300 or so Maine-based boats that last were licensed in the fishery will have to keep their shrimp nets at home and pursue other species.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.