They’re small and sweet, beloved by locals and tourists alike, and will soon be indefinitely unavailable. The Northern shrimp population in the Gulf of Maine has officially collapsed and a moratorium on shrimping is being recommended for the 2014 season. Restaurants in Maine are rushing to get their hands on whatever is left over from last year’s catch.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission announced the news Tuesday after voting unanimously to halt shrimping for the upcoming season.
The Gulf of Maine Northern shrimp fishery has never been big. But the season, usually between December and May, helps make ends meet for Maine fisherman during otherwise difficult winter months, before the lobsters and tourists arrive. In 2012, the value of the Gulf catch was about $5.1 million. Historically, as much as 25 million pounds of shrimp have been caught in the Gulf of Maine. The last time the fishery had to shut down, way back in 1977, just 1 million pounds of shrimp were landed. Regulators closed the fishery the following year, and since then, shrimp populations have rebounded to record highs.
The problem looks bleaker this time around. The annual shrimp survey in 2012 revealed the lowest abundance of adults ever recorded in the survey’s thirty-year history.
“I think everyone was startled by what we saw in 2012, and there was a lot of pressure to close down the fishery for the 2013 season,” said John Annala, Chief Scientific Officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. “The survey this summer found just 20 percent of the 2012 record low, so it has fallen off incredibly sharply.”
Perhaps most worrying is the fact that juvenile shrimp have not been picked up in a survey since 2010. Northern shrimp live about five years, so the lack of younger shrimp for three years straight may mean empty nets for years to come.
“During the last ten years the water temperature in the Gulf of Maine has been running about 2.5 degrees Celsius or about 5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the previous one hundred year average,” Annala said. “We don’t know what the thermal threshold of this species is, but the Gulf of Maine has always been the southernmost extreme of their range, so we probably don’t have much wiggle room.”
Even if Northern shrimp prove themselves to be more heat tolerant than scientists predict, the warmer waters in the Gulf of Maine are proving deadly to the shrimp’s food supply, tiny zooplankton. Last spring, the usual surge in plankton never happened. Many species of plankton are also at the southernmost end of their thermal tolerance. Warmer waters are also making the Gulf more hospitable to shrimp predators like dogfish and red hake.
“Decisions like this one show how fishermen are on the front lines of the battle against climate change,” said Michael Conathan, Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress in a phone interview. “This is not a nebulous, maybe-someday-in-the-future problem. This is unchecked carbon pollution affecting livelihoods here in Maine today.”
Shrimp aren’t the only valuable marine resource imperiled by warmer waters in the Gulf of Maine. Lobsters, which are the economic backbone of many coastal communities, have been heading northward in recent years in search of colder water. These iconic crustaceans are also much more vulnerable to a deadly shell disease as temperatures rise.