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Shrimping Season Closed in Maine: Collapse of Stock Reveals Need for Better Regulations in Boom-and-Bust Industry

If you are a shrimp fanatic, you may find yourself deprived in 2014. Just a couple of weeks ago, regulators voted to close the Gulf of Maine shrimp fishing season for 2014 and possibly longer. This year yielded the smallest catch ever recorded, and regulators want to give the shrimp population a chance to recover. The fishery historically holds a boom-and-bust cycle, where landings increase steadily until reaching a peak and crash, collapsing the entire fishery. This avoidable closure reveals the strong need for better fishery management in order to ensure a sustainable future for the species, the fishermen, and ultimately the consumer.

A hard blow for fishermen

On December 3rd, 2013 the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to close shrimping in the  Gulf of Maine for 2014.  The last shutdown of the fishery was in 1978, when the landings crashed from 25 million pounds a year to less than 1 million pounds a year.

Even though it’s a small fishery only running about half the year, many New England fishermen rely on shrimping as their livelihood. The fisheries closure is a huge economic blow to these fishermen and to shrimp processors. Processors in Maine ship the catch all across the nation and to many markets in Europe, so the repercussions of this decision will be felt worldwide.

 A report on the population status was released on November 21st, announcing that the stock has collapsed, the reasons for which I believe are largely avoidable.  The main issue was cited as overfishing, predation, and a lack of recruitment of juveniles for the past three years. The report also attributed the collapse in part to climate change.  Shrimp are extremely sensitive to climate change, as a warming ocean temperature has been shown to dramatically reduce their number one food supply, plankton.

Boom and Bust

Looking at this graph, we can clearly see the populations of shrimp (biomass in orange) rising and falling every few years. This is not a natural process. As fishermen land more shrimp, more people enter the fishery to get in on the profits, putting more pressure on the population. At a certain point the pressure becomes too high and fishermen are catching shrimp faster than they can reproduce. At this point the stock collapses, dropping the shrimp biomass way below sustainable levels. It’s a chain reaction from that point: once there are fewer shrimp, market prices start going down, and fewer and fewer people attempt to catch them. Processing facilities don’t want to deal with changing equipment for the small amounts of shrimp coming in, which means demand goes even lower. This gives the population a reprieve, and numbers go back up. When the entire cycle repeats itself every few years, we term it a boom-and-bust cycle.

 This is not a sustainable system. Although we see the numbers rising once the fishing pressure lessens, the goal of a sustainable fishery is to maintain a healthy population – not collapse it with no plan or data as to when it might recover. We saw a bust in the shrimping season in the late 1997-98 and the population numbers did not start to go back up until 2004.

 Sustainability in any fishery is achieved by regulation – including placing a cap on how many pounds can be landed in a season, defining a season or duration of the fishing period, and restricting how many fishermen there are fishing for the same species. There is a serious problem with the fishery though: there are simply too many vessels trying to catch too few shrimp.

 Shrimping has been an open access fishery, meaning anyone can buy a permit and participate. This type of open access consistently leads to overfishing. It also creates an “arms race” amongst fishermen to be the ones pulling in the most catch.  We’ve seen this happen with California’s Dungeness crab commercial fishery, which recently adopted limits on permits and traps.

If the shrimp fishery is to become sustainable for commercial uses, there must be a better, more comprehensive policy combined with stronger regulations and a better enforcement mechanism.

Recommendations For Better Management

  • Implementing restrictions on how many pounds of shrimp can be landed each year
  • Limit the number of permits that are issued for fishermen to catch shrimp
  • Place parameters on the fishing season – such as restricting the months, days, even hours of the day that fishing can occur
  • Define and enforce penalties for not following the regulations

When the shrimping season reopens, these recommendations would go a tremendous distance in insuring that the fishery remains open for many years to come.

 Sustaining our fisheries

We’ve seen the consequences of unsustainable fishing.  These include the loss of revenue and ultimately jobs, detrimental ecological impacts, and the disappearance of delicious seafood from the dinner table. Join us in supporting environmentally-friendly fishing practices, and choose Pucci Foods as your dependable seafood distributor.

 

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