Whenever a new commercial fishery starts up anywhere in the USA - it is news! 

With green-tail or white shrimp (Litopenaeus setiferus) moving north into Virginia and Maryland waters, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and Maryland’s state legislators are cautiously laying the groundwork to establish commercial shrimp fisheries in areas of the bay and waters of the two states.

 Virginia has had an experimental ocean shrimp season since 2017 and in 2021 VMRC approved regulations to establish an official season from Oct. 1st to Jan. 31st off Virginia Beach; established the fishing grounds out of Virginia Beach from Cape Henry Lighthouse south to the North Carolina line and eastward to the Three Nautical Mile Limit; set catch and size limits, reporting requirements,  and approval of gear used to harvest shrimp.

There are currently 12 licensed watermen working in the Atlantic Ocean off of Virginia Beach. Information from the Eastern Shore of Virginia has been limited and as such remains under an experimental permit presently with four participants.  

Maryland’s 2021 legislature is in the process of creating a shrimp fishery through state Senate Bill 537 sponsored by state Sen. Mary Beth Crozza and House Bill 1149 sponsored by Delegate Jay Jacobs. The general assembly has approved legislation that allows the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to establish parameters for a shrimp fishery “pilot program” for certain commercial licenses. It is hopeful that a pilot program will be in place by July 1, 2022. The Maryland Waterman’s Association is endorsing the legislation, said MWA president Robert T. Brown. “They are already doing it down in Virginia and it looks like it is working down there,” says Brown. 

He says DNR is considering opening up the fishery in the ocean off Ocean City on the state’s Eastern Shore and on the bay side near Crisfield, Smith Island, and Hoopers Island. 

“DNR has got several things they have got to work out before establishing the fishery,” says Brown. “We are, however, optimistic that we are going to have a small shrimp fishery soon.

“We see this as a positive thing. Every little bit helps the watermen,” says Brown. “We also see this as a fishery that might take some pressure off the blue crab fishery. It might be a few less watermen that you’ve got crabbing.”

Virginia’s shrimping history 

Back in the 1990s, Patrick Geer, VMRC’s Chief of Fishery Management, was working for the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s juvenile fish and blue crab trawl survey sampling the Virginia tributaries and main-stem Chesapeake Bay. 

“Every now and then we would pull in one to two pounds of shrimp in a drag,” says Geer. “We were aware early on that white shrimp were showing up in the bay but catches were limited and sporadic from year to year.”

Geer says that in 2016 that same survey began to see a marked and consistent increase in shrimp abundance, with offshore samples for the Institute’s Northeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program (NEAMAP) observing more than a ten-fold increase in white shrimp from their fall surveys between 2014 and 2020.

In 2017 ocean gillnetters out of Virginia Beach approached VMRC about large catches of shrimp in gillnets, They requested permission to try a modified dredge rig to see how many could be caught. 

“They took two old crab dredges, removed the dredge teeth, attached a 16' net, and experimented with it,” says Geer. “They caught enough shrimp that we established an experimental season that continued off Virginia Beach through the 2020 season,” he says. During the 2020 experimental season (Oct. 1 through Jan. 31, 2021) Virginia watermen out of Virginia Beach caught 410,000 lb. of shrimp — almost exclusively white shrimp.

In 2018, the permittees modified the gear, creating a lightweight aluminum 16' x 4' framed trawl pulled from the stern of the boat. Since then that’s been the only VMRC-approved gear in the fishery.

The number of permitted vessels has grown from one in 2017 to eight boats out of Virginia Beach. With the new regulation in 2021, licenses for the Virginia Beach Shrimp Trawl Harvest area were increased to 12 boats, with VMRC holding a lottery to issue four more additional licenses.

“We are trying to grow this fishery slowly,” says Geer. “Usually when a fishery starts it goes like hellfire and we have to work to play catch-up.”

Virginia is shaping the fishery around vessels in the  38' to 50' range that make day trips in the ocean, he says.

“The Virginia Beach fishermen are doing well,” says Geer. “We do not want large shrimp trawlers in Virginia waters. This fishery is directed towards small fish boats in hopes of providing watermen with an alternative fishery. We want to limit the capitalization involved in the fishery down to provide an affordable fishery.”

To put things in perspective, the net being used by Virginia's fishermen is only 16', while the large shrimp trawlers in the Southwest and Gulf of Mexico typically pull a combination of nets up to 220' in width.

“The try-net used by these big trawlers to assess their catch is more on the scale of what is used in Virginia’s fledgling fishery,” Geer said.

VMRC regulations have also established a bycatch quota of 20 quarts a day, roughly 32 pounds of shrimp for all other commercial gears. 

“The reason for the bycatch quota is that we are getting reports of shrimp being caught in crab scrapes on the bay,” he says. “We are not going to permit trawls inside the bay nor do we want these other gears licensed for other species to begin targeting shrimp. We want these catches reported so we can properly monitor the fishery.”

Many Virginia Beach shrimpers are selling their catch at the dock right off the boat, says Geer. “Some have Facebook pages and let customers know what they have before they get back at the dock. When they return at the end of the day, customers are standing in line. They are selling to individual customers in five-pound bags and restaurant owners are coming down and buying 100 pounds right off the boats,” he says.

The increase in the shrimp population is associated with warmer water temperatures. The waters off the mouth of Chesapeake Bay has not historically been warm enough to host large numbers of white shrimp, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Warmer ocean temperatures, however, during the past few decades have been pushing the species further north into Virginia and Maryland waters, according to the agency. 

It appears that the shrimp numbers are now enough to sustain a small commercial fishery. At least that’s what VMRC and Maryland’s DNR officials and commercial fishermen are hoping for.    

Larry Chowning is a writer for the Southside Sentinel in Urbanna, Va., a regular contributor to National Fisherman, and the author of numerous books.

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