PORT CLYDE, Me. — Shrimping in the Gulf of Maine was so bad last season that Randy Cushman, a longtime fisherman, wondered if there was any point in going out at all.
“I can honestly say it was the worst catch that I’ve ever seen in my career,” said Mr. Cushman, 51, who has captained a boat for more than 30 years. “I was calling people and saying, ‘Let’s shut this fishery down, this is stupid.’ ”
Regulators recently did just that, closing the 2014 Gulf of Maine shrimping season — which, in a normal year, might have run from December through the spring — to give the supply time to recover. The unusual step has brought some hope to Mr. Cushman and to other fishermen and processors whose livelihoods depend in part on the shrimp’s making a comeback, even as they wonder how to weather this season, and perhaps longer, without it. But others say closing the season completely will deal too heavy a blow to the tiny, specialized market, eroding another part of New England’s imperiled fishing economy.
The shrimp in question are called Northern shrimp or, more locally, Maine shrimp. They are the southernmost appearance of a species, Pandalus borealis, that can also be found in Canadian and Icelandic waters, but the ones caught here in the Gulf of Maine tend to be at the bigger end of the species. They are usually caught in the winter, when females come close to shore to lay their eggs in cold water. They are smaller and typically sweeter than warm-water or farmed shrimp, with delicate, edible shells, and are popular in European and Scandinavian markets, although New England chefs use them, too.
The fishery is among the last in Maine to be open-access, meaning licenses are not limited as they are elsewhere. As a result, some fishermen say, the supply is vulnerable to overfishing when prices are high. It had a peak in the late 1960s and the ’70s before the supply collapsed and regulators imposed the last complete closing, in 1978. In 2011, regulators estimate, about 350 boats — mostly in Maine, with some in Massachusetts and New Hampshire — caught $10.6 million worth of shrimp; last season, about 200 boats caught an estimated $1.2 million worth.