I went shrimping for the first time almost two years ago. The 65-foot trawler Jamie & Ashley left Portland a little before 4:30 on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012, a week after the opening of the northern shrimp season in the Gulf of Maine.
My story of that day begins shortly after we left port, with the chatter of other fishermen also out that morning:
"There's plenty of squawking coming over the radio as we head out of Portland harbor.
"'You can't f-king do it three f-king days a week,' says one unidentified voice."
The overheard complaints stemmed from strict rules for the 2012 season. Trawlers like the Jamie & Ashley could only fish on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, beginning a half hour before sunrise and ending, with gear out of the water, at 3 p.m.
The story represents a couple firsts for me. It was the first time I had started a story with an f-bomb (or the indication of one). It was also the first time I had gone out on a commercial fishing boat and written about it for the magazine.
That day also marked the first time I saw the competitive nature of fishermen firsthand. The restrictions were designed to make a shortage in quota last longer, but they meant that everybody had to be out at the same time. Which meant everybody wanted to be in the best spots.
The ocean becomes a small place when fishing boats are on top of each other. It was the beginning of the season, but the Jamie & Ashley had done well so far, scooping up 5,000 and 7,000 pounds of shrimp its two previous times out (by comparison another boat had only hauled in 700 pounds on Monday). So when skipper Steve Jordan picked a spot to tow he had company "within punching distance," as he put it.
After a tense encounter with another boat that wanted in our groove, the first haul was a good one. But when Jordan decided to move away from the crowd, the catch thinned out too. "What are you going to do? That's fishing," as Jordan put it.
The rules and a quota cut in half made the 2012 season a difficult one. After the first couple weeks, Allyson Jordan, owner of the Jamie & Ashley (no relation to Steve), decided to piggyback groundfish trips on shrimp days so Jordan and the two crew members could at least make a living wage for their time on the water.
This year there will be no shrimp season. The closure, which followed a November assessment showing the collapse of the stock, is the first in 35 years.
With northern shrimp off the table, New England fishermen already struggling with poor groundfish quotas and low lobster prices have lost a fishery that was helping to make up the difference.
Being a fisherman has always been a gamble, but nobody wants to play a game when there's no chance of winning. If we want to preserve fishing in New England, people like Allyson need the flexibility and support to be innovative to come up with a Plan B. Or Plan C, D or E, if necessary.
I've read that there have been discussions of requesting federal aid for fishermen affected by the shrimp collapse. If money is available, shouldn't it go toward developing markets for species that are plentiful and gear innovations to avoid the ones that aren't? Give New England fishermen a chance to show their fighting spirit.
Photo by Melissa Wood