By Sean Horgan
---- — There is, it seems, more bad news coming out of the ocean than fish.
In yet another blow to local commercial fishermen who work the Gulf of Maine winter shrimp season, it appears the 2013-14 shrimping season may be even more dismal than last year’s abbreviated and paltry campaign.
Marin Hawk of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the multistate body that manages near-shore species such as shrimp, said that the data collected to date indicates the current shrimp stock could be the lowest since the organization started keeping records in 1984.
“The update isn’t quite completed, but the indices this year are the lowest on record and there was another recruitment failure,” Hawk said, referring to the term that attempts to quantify how many of a particular species make their way into a specific fishery.
“It’s not looking good, in short,” she said. “We’re just not seeing as many [shrimp] as we used to and they’re not where they used to be.”
Gloucester fisherman Paul Theriault would argue that point. He’s already seeing mature, egg-laden shrimp — some among the largest he’s seen in more than two decades of fishing.
In the last week of September, Theriault said he was captaining his F/V Terminator in waters about 15 miles north of Rockport, performing a bait tow in advance of that day’s tuna fishing.
“We were towing using a raised foot-rope trawl, which fishes about 4 feet off the bottom,” Theriault said.
Part of what he pulled in startled him — huge, mature shrimp he estimated at six years old, almost all bursting with eggs.
That led him to two possibilities: The shrimp stocks aren’t as depleted as the scientists maintain or the shrimp are coming in closer — and earlier — to shore to lay their eggs than the fishery management surveys have indicated.
The problem, he said is that the fishery managers always conduct their surveys in the same place and at the same time of year, which renders them incapable of allowing for the shifting stock and modified timetable.
“There’s something wrong with their science and the way they get their data and they won’t fix it,” Theriault said.
Hawk said Theriault isn’t the first fisherman to advance the possibility the shrimp now are showing up at different times of the year than in the past.
But, she said, it is imperative the body’s technical committee conduct its annual summer and fall surveys at the same relative time and in the same general location to allow for an accurate comparisons to previous years.
One thing is clear: This Gulf of Maine shrimp season will be one for the inglorious record books if it’s worse than last year, when boats from Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire hauled in 662,000 pounds — the lowest harvest since 1978, when the fishery was shuttered altogether.
Based on the projection of a dwindling shrimp stock, regulators set the total catch limit for Gulf of Maine shrimp last season at 1.4 million pounds, delayed the opening of the season to late January and restricted fishing to two days a week.
They later expanded the fishing schedule and lifted the 800-pound trip limit. But by March, the season was declared a bigger bust than anyone expected.
Hawk said the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will set the new 2013-14 catch quotas and fishing schedules in November.
But at least for now, based on the preliminary survey numbers, this season is shaping up as even worse than last year — offering fishermen yet another haul of bad news from the sea.