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December 06. 2012 12:58AM

Fishermen frustrated over shrimpy shrimp season

PORTSMOUTH - Fisherman Stephen Lee might not even stay in the area this year for the shrimp season.

He said the total allowable catch has been cut so dramatically, and the season is expected to be so short, he is not sure it will be worth it to go to sea.

On Tuesday, the Northern Shrimp Section of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission set the total allowable shrimp catch for Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts at about 1.2 million pounds - a 72 percent reduction over last year.

The opening date has also been pushed back to late January.

Lee said he expects shrimp fishermen will only get five or six days at sea this year. Two years ago, shrimp fishermen spent about 150 days at sea. Last year, the season lasted only 21 days.

"It's not really a season," Lee said. "It's pretty small. I'm not sure if I'm even going to hang around for it."

Lee sits on an advisory panel that reviews ASMFC's findings and provides recommendations to the section before decisions are made. He said environmental factors are contributing to low shrimp numbers.

"They are not blaming it on fishing ... but fishing is the only thing they can control at this point," Lee said.

Lee said shrimp "recruitment" numbers are low largely as a result of warmer ocean temperatures.

Ocean temperatures in the western Gulf of Maine shrimp habitat have been increasing in recent years and have reached or approached unprecedented highs in the past three years, he said.

Lee said the fishery faced similar circumstances in the 1950s, with the Gulf Stream moving up and pinching off the Labrador current off Newfoundland, and preventing the cold water from running into the Gulf of Maine.

"I think next year we may see some movement, although I don't think we will see a shrimp season at all (next year)," Lee said.

Lee said there are about 18 boats in New Hampshire that fish for shrimp and the impact on them this year could be "traumatic."

"Anyone who has counted on that for part of their finances for the year is kind of ... out of luck, I'd say. It is not going to be good," Lee said.

Lee owns the Portsmouth-based F/V Kirsten Lee and has licenses to fish in both New Hampshire and Maine, which he said helped last year.

About 90 percent of the shrimp fishery is conducted in Maine.

Lee said he is a "niche" fishermen. In the spring he heads south to catch monkfish, returns in the summer for herring season and then normally, with the winter shrimp season, he gets a decent year.

But his year, the herring was "so so" he said. With the shrimp season abbreviated, he might head somewhere else.

"I don't want to leave the area, I want to stay here and fish, but for five or six days, is it worth it," Lee said.

The trawl fishery will begin Jan. 22 with landing days on Monday and Wednesday only.

The trap fishery, which largely takes place in Maine, will begin Feb. 5, with six landing days each week and an 800-pound trip limit.

Lee said there have been discussions about making changes to address challenges, including issuing a limited number of licenses for the fishery or setting trip limits per boat.

"There are a lot more tools in the toolbox than there used to be," Lee said, but added that these kinds of changes never happen quickly.

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Gretyl Macalaster may be reached at gmacalaster@newstote.com.



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