Shrimp trappers organize to 'get a fair shake'
When the 2012 shrimp season was shut down a month early after the harvest limit — cut in half from the year before — was caught, many fishermen along the coast were without work.
The Maine Shrimp Trappers' Association was founded after the abrupt end to the season to voice fishermen's concerns and ideas about how to sustain the fishery and their livelihoods.
Timothy Simmons, a third-generation lobsterman and shrimp fisherman from Nobleboro, is the president of the association. "We weren't treated fairly last season. We basically set our traps in the water and the total allowable catch was caught up. So, we set traps and then took them right out," he said.
Simmons said the association's objective is to represent shrimp fishermen, keeping them informed and involved. "This organization [MSTA] is at every meeting, every conference and sharing information," he said. The disadvantage to non-membership, said Simmons, is that an individual fisherman would have to attend each meeting to be represented. "You can't do it, if you're a fisherman, you have to fish," he said.
Although the association is for shrimp trappers, the group has met with small boat fleets along the coast from Tenants Harbor to Stonington. Thirty members are represented by the MSTA and Simmons expects that number to grow.
Working with the association is the Penobscot East Resource Center. The groups have met to discuss commonalities between the organizations. Carla Guenther, the fisheries science and leadership adviser for PERC, said she has facilitated meetings for shrimp fishermen along the coast to address biological and economic concerns and to discuss management options.
Trawlers begin their season on Jan. 1 for a fishing schedule of Monday, Wednesday and Friday for fishermen in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. The lone restriction enacted was fishermen needed to finish the day at 1 p.m. and then the rule was modified to 3 p.m. There were no limits on daily yields.
Fishermen that use traps to catch shrimp were not allowed to begin work until Feb. 1 and were only allowed to catch 1,000 pounds of shrimp each day. "It wasn't fair, but we worked through it," Simmons said.
When the season started, "everybody realized they were catching shrimp faster than they thought they were going to," he said.
But landings were reported slowly throughout the season. "In week six, numbers from week three were still being reported," said Simmons. The lagging reports contributed to the abrupt end of the season.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which manages Northern Shrimp through an interstate agreement, decided to shut down the season in mid-February because the yields would have far exceeded the total allowable catch for the year. Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts shared a total catch of 4.4 million pounds for the 2011/2012 season.
Shrimpers were allowed two days to remove their gear and any shrimp in traps were released.
Many lobster fishermen supplement their income by shrimping in the winter. Simmons said not having a shrimping season and the poor price of lobsters this year is causing a difficult economic situation for many fishermen. "They got a double whammy, and money is tight," he said.
According to Maggie Hunter of the Department of Marine Resources, the shrimp stock has declined from a high in 2006 to below average abundance in 2011. The 2012 assessment of shrimp trawl surveys began last week and the data will be compiled in late September. She added that shrimp stocks can change rapidly. In an email, Hunter said, "We are concerned about recent high spring water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine which may have been associated with poor survival of young shrimp."
There are multiple obstacles fishermen face excluding environmental factors, including shrimping being an open access fishery. This means permits are available to anyone at any time.
Hunter said the ASMFC has begun an addendum to the shrimp management plan, specifically Amendment 2. On May 24, the shrimp section voted to include discussion items on allocating quota by gear and state based on past history and also limited entry based on past history. She added that if the shrimp section votes to adopt a limited entry plan, it would have to be approved by the Maine Legislature. This process will not be completed before the upcoming season.
Terry Stockwell, director of external affairs for the DMR and chairman of the ASMFC Northern Shrimp Section, said the DMR does not currently have a position on restricting access to permits. "The DMR and the Maine shrimp fishery, both trappers and trawlers, will review public comments received this September on the addendum for limited entry discussion and developing a state position before the Shrimp Section meets in October to approve the final measures," he said.
Further recommendations the shrimp trappers' association has to improve the industry include allowing trawlers and trappers to start their seasons on the same date — Jan. 25 — to reduce the harvesting of young male shrimp.
Shrimp are hermaphroditic. The species reach sexual maturity first as males, and at approximately age 2-and-a-half turn into females.
Simmons said shrimping as an open access fishery can be sustainable if the correct measures are taken. "In the upcoming season, the TAC may be so low it may be difficult to make a living," he said of whether the open access creates difficulties for existing permit holders. He added that the total allowable catch should be apportioned by state, not regionally, as it is measured now.
Simmons said, "I think they're doing a good job trying to get the science right." The state has hired Dr. Yong Chen, a researcher at the University of Maine at Orono, to develop a new shrimp stock assessment model. "As an industry, we're all concerned that we get the best possible data out there. We all want to make sure it's done right and are willing to help," said Simmons.
"We're trying to make sure we get a fair shake, and make sure what happened last year doesn't happen again," he said.
Long-term goals of the shrimp trappers' association are to work with state and regional regulators and other organizations to ensure fairness and sustainability of the biomass.
"Nobody wants to kill the biomass, we all need the industry," he said.
Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at JLaaka@courierpublicationsllc.com.