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  • Writer's pictureEmily Coffin

An Update on Northern Shrimp

Many Mainers and seafood enthusiasts remember the delicious boon of shrimp that fishermen once harvested in the winter from the icy Gulf of Maine. In my family, over the holidays we would fight over my mother’s famous shrimp dip composed of secret ingredients and tiny Northern shrimp.

Fishermen picking through shrimp on the back of the boat
A test tow taken out of Port Clyde

Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to enjoy our favorite dish in quite some time. Northern shrimp have disappeared from menus and dinner tables and the current science and management doesn’t suggest there is much hope of it returning any time soon.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the management body which regulates the shrimp fishery, passed a motion on Friday, December 1st to extend the Northern shrimp moratorium indefinitely.

The Commission included a provision that will allow the fishery to reopen if the population increases to a level that can support a commercial fishery, however, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) canceled the official shrimp survey in 2020 so there is little hope that the data will exist to support a resurgence of shrimp in the Gulf of Maine.

First some background: In 2013, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission enacted a moratorium on the species when the annual stock assessment put the shrimp populations at an all-time low. For several years after the moratorium was put in place, test tows were conducted by boats throughout the Gulf of Maine to monitor the stock for rebound. Those test landings were able to be sold, so there were some shrimp available in the local markets. As the years went by and the population continued to decline, managers decided to pause the test tows and data collection because they contributed to stock depletion. The test tows were also canceled because the volunteer fishermen selected for data collection could not catch enough shrimp to pay for fuel, crew, and time spent away from catching other more profitable species.

The story of the pandalus borealis, or Northern Shrimp, is still developing, but managers and scientists agree that, presently, there are not enough shrimp in the Gulf of Maine to support a fishery. Many consider the rapid decline of the Northern Shrimp as one of the first fisheries in the US lost to climate change. It’s well known that the Gulf has warmed significantly since the beginning of the 21st century and has thus slowly become inhabitable for the shrimp that were once indigenous to Maine. Shrimp require a specific water temperature to reproduce and spawn, but the average temperature of the Gulf has increased to a degree above bearable for the species according to the best available science.

Annual Sea Surface Temperature Gulf of Maine

Pandalus borealis are named for their presence in the Northern reaches of the Atlantic; borealis being the Latin word for north. When shrimp were plentiful in Maine waters, they were at the southern end of their habitat distribution.

The Maine shrimp fishery saw four or five years of significant landings, with some years over 100% of what was scientifically set as the limit for catch. Some question the role of management in the disappearance of shrimp, but the stock is historically resilient and able to rebound. In 1978, the shrimp fishery shut down after a rapid decline in abundance, but because shrimp have short lifespans and can reach maturity quickly, they can rebound quickly when fishing effort pauses. The fishery recovered within a year and the fishery returned.

This population decline differs from the previous one because we haven’t had a boom on the other side. Experts in marine and climate science suggest changes in waters temperatures and not overfishing is hampering any opportunity for a fishery again in the Gulf of Maine.

Although many believe that the shrimp are gone for good, the decision to suspend future surveys on a species that is still present in our waters points to a greater problem within fishery management. Fishing activity, quota, and incomes all rely on stock assessments, which are scientific quantifications of stock biomass that determine how many pounds of fish can be caught in a year. When a survey is suspended or canceled, it creates a negative feedback loop in which managers and scientists make quota decisions based on faulty or nonexistent data.

Fisherman separating bycatch from shrimp
One of a handful of small test tows done in 2016

Distrust between scientists and fishermen is not a new phenomenon.

Scientists are beholden to federal laws that require specific surveys. When these surveys are suspended, they are still required to set a quota. In 2020, surveys were canceled due to the Coronavirus pandemic, leading to a negative ripple effect for many species in the federally managed fisheries. The shrimp fishery and its survey have been put on permanent hold; This is concerning for fishermen who are still holding out hope that this once resilient fishery will rebound again. The backlash from the fishing industry is a reminder that shutting down surveys that determine fishability is a dangerous road to go down.

While there is a diminishing chance that we will have a shrimp fishery ever again because of the effects of climate change, the lack of scientific data collection will almost certainly doom any future commercial fishery. Without knowledge and data, how can we anticipate changes, for both good or ill, to shrimp or any other fishery in our changing waters? As we move forward, finding new, more efficient ways to collect data from fishermen and then getting that data into scientific models and management is an urgent need that we all must collectively address.



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