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Bright Spot for Maine Shrimpers Amid Season's Gloom
02/04/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Word late Friday that shrimp trawlers will now be able to stay out round the clock on Mondays and Wednesdays is a small bit of good news in an otherwise dreary season. Just a few years ago, the New England shrimp fishery was seen as a success story in a region where cod and other fish stocks have declined dramatically. But warmer water and overfishing have forced regulators to gradually put in place the same kinds of strict catch climits that are devastating the groundfishing industry. In the midcoast community of Port Clyde, where shrimp has been a key product at the local seafood coop, fishermen and seafood processors are expressing new worries about the future. Jay Field reports.

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This winter, if you show up at Port Clyde Fresh Catch on the wrong day, you're likely to not find any shrimp at all. On a recent morning, workers drop lobsters and handfuls of crabs into plastic bins, tear open the shells, pull out the meat and set it aside for packaging.

Port Clyde Fresh Catch is a wholesale cooperative that also sells indivdual seafood shares as part a community-supported fisheries program. Glen Libby is one of its founders. "We're shippin' lobster down to the Liberty Hotel in Boston and we're sending crab all over the place," he says.

But shrimp? "We've had two batches so far. And one out of the two days each week that we've been allowed go, the weather has been really horrible," Libby says. "So no one's gone."

Just three years ago, fishermen hauled in so many shrimp in the Gulf of Maine that regulators actually extended the harvest to late May. This season, marine resources regulators have been forced to hand down the toughest restrictions yet on shrimping.

Fishermen are allowed to catch a total of 625 metric tons of shrimp, with trawling accounting for 87 percent of the total, and trapping 13 percent. The haul limit amounts to a 72 percent reduction from last year's catch.

"The thing is, with us here in Port Clyde, the trawlin' fleet, whatever you want to call it, the groundfish fishery and the shrimp fishery has been able to keep us goin'," says Randy Cushman. "We've always had one or the other to bail us out every year, keep us goin', keep our heads above water."

When he's not on the water, Cushman is usually down here, in his basement, working on a new trawling net. Cushmen, who owns one of the five remaining large trawlers in Port Clyde, says the combination he and others have come to depend is no longer a safe bet. The groundfish fishery has been in decline for years now.

But Cushman says the recent trouble with shrimp could have been avoided. "There's one explanation. It's real simple: It's called mismanagement," he says. "From 2003 to 2010 we rebuilt that fishery. It was very healthy. And the last three years we collapsed it."

Cushman says state officials managed the fishery poorly, once it had been returned to health. But the state's top fisheries regulator says officials are battling forces that are beyond their control.

"I think it's the water temperature," says Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources. "You can go back and look at the water temperature issues back in the 50s, when we saw very similar increases in Gulf of Maine water temperature, and the shrimp stock actually collapsed."

Keliher says regulators are hoping to see a reversal in the water temperature, like the one that eventually came decades ago. But in the meantime, he says officials have no choice but to continue to manage the remaining stocks as if no change is expected anytime soon.



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